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 Antlered Ship
By Dashka Slater, illustrated by Eric and Terry Fan
Published by Simon & Schuster/Beach Lane Books
If there’s a book for the very junior set that has an air of Game of Thronesabout it, The Antlered Ship is it. Or maybe it’s just its fantastical seafaring charts (which also serve as glorious endpapers, for a new kind of reading), exotic locales, and the gorgeous fur cloaking a young fox, Marco, who stands intrepidly at its center. Much of his boldness lies in his asking questions all the time. These alone will do much to delight or thoughtfully provoke this exquisite book’s readers, including as they do: “Why don’t trees ever talk,” “Why do some songs make you happy and others make you sad,” “Do islands like being alone,” and “Why is water so wet?” The rest of the foxes in the Land of Foxes (fun to look it up on those maps) merely respond with the likes of, “What does that have to do with chicken stew,” stirring a pot that does nothing of the sort but remains the same calm concoction whenever it’s made.
In this case, the answer to Marco’s frolicsome existentialism sails straight into harbor in the entrancing shape of a masted ship crewed by a group of deer—the captain’s name is Sylvia—lost but still hopeful about its quest for a place called Sweet Tree Island. The ship’s prow, of course, is carved into an antlered deer’s head, which also serves as a perfect perch for Marco and a flock of pigeons that signs on and whose leader’s dashing appearance peaks in the jaunty red bandanna tied around his head. But appearances can be deceiving as Marco discerns, and once on the high seas and faced with such difficulties as storms, some of his companions fall short in the bravery department, while others are lacking in the participation mode. (Marco also has to deal with an all-vegetarian menu.) It’s thrilling when Marco comes up with answers within himself to help him cope with the situation and rally the troops. Even bullies like pirates (the animal cast is perfect)—may be less scary when confronted by the transformation of the antlered carving into a unique type of weapon, though the reason will be kept top-secret for now. The importance of friendship also rears its head.
It’s fine, though, to indicate that the ship makes it to its destination. Pretty as the island is, though, it lacks any new breed of foxes Marco had hoped to find to scratch the itch of his reigning curiosity and understand a fox who likes to think outside the soup cauldron. It’s a lucky thing that, also for animals, answers can be found where least expected, meaning also in the midst of adventures that are of the heart, as much as of the finely tuned physique.
Rise of the Jumbies
By Tracey Baptiste
Published by Algonquin Young Readers
Childhood is a classroom to the self. From an early age, Corinne La Mer has been taught, by her loving, plucky fisherman father, that “all families are connected…. We don’t get to choose who we share blood with. But we do get to choose how we are with each other.’”
Corinne is closely tied into her small fishing community in Tracey Baptiste’s French Caribbean—Baptiste grew up Trinidad until she was fifteen—but she’s also half “jumbie,” half descended from a jumbie mother, one of those beings from the many-faced spirit world of Caribbean folklore. For that reason, despite her friends, with whom she works and plays, and her sweet, engaging personality, she has started to get the side eye from people in the village as increasing numbers of children have been disappearing from its midst. To do something about this, and help find the missing children, Corinne strikes a deal with the ferocious sea goddess Mama D’Leau, always surrounded by her special mermaids. Part of this story is about learning to keep up the end of a bargain, and, sprinkled with Baptiste’s French Caribbean vocabulary and myths, it takes Corinne and her chosen comrades on quite a journey.
That it involves traveling, over and under the sea, to Ghana, highlights the ties between West Africa and the New World, especially the folktales they share, but also customs, dress, and the dread history of the slave trade. (A nice touch are mermaid’s tails in the colors of West African fabrics; a chilling instance, an encounter with a sunken slave ship.) Back at home, Corinne must contend with nature’s punishments that will resonate for readers in the here and now: hurricanes, wild fires, drownings. And, as her own kind of mixed-race child, she’ll always have to contend with a sense of difference, however it’s measured. But Corinne gets another valuable lesson, from another fond adult, Mrs. Rootsingh (her background is East Indian): “It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks of you. It only matters what you think of yourself.” Baptiste has Corinne on her way..
The Exact Location of Home
By Kate Messner
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing
That he’s only almost 13, and not a more precise number, would normally be one of the few vague elements in Kirby “Zig” Zigonski’s life—he loves science, electronic gadgetry, circuitry’s certainties, and the idea that he, his mother and father form a permanently happy family. But Zig’s father hasn’t been home in a while, and has actually fallen out of touch—and his mother, working hard as a diner waitress while studying to be a teacher, is having some difficulty sticking to her own vague story about why her husband is away. Despite his latent worries, Zig does still enjoy his “garage-saling” with Gianna, his close friend who may be hinting she’d like to be a little more, and when a lucky strike leads them to a GPS, Zig comes up with the notion that his real-estate-involved father is leaving leads for him around Zig’s hometown as a geo-cacher. Through Zig, Messner’s introduction to this obsessive hobby is brain-teasing fun and games, and gives growing insight into his personality. For Zig, though, a boy who hasn’t met a scientific fact he doesn’t like, but isn’t yet up to snuff in understanding people and feelings, it’s deeply serious, and a means for his multiplying doubts about his dad to emerge. He has an entertaining and appealing companion in Gianna, and her younger sister, Ruby, is something else, with her equally single-minded devotion to the birdlife in their semi-rural area, and dedication to helping expose outside development forces threatening the heron population of the town’s most idyllic spot.
Essentially warm-hearted inside all his geekiness, Zig is challenged in his pre-teen humanity when he and his mother have to move in, uncomfortably, with her sister (selling delicious pie at the diner just can’t pay the rent), leading into a tough period only heightened, astronomically, in Zig’s eyes, by their next landing in a church homeless shelter. It’s a different kind of education for Mr. Zigonski, Jr., a moral and emotional one, and it speaks well of his inherent character that he not-so-slowly begins to cope, befriending a hard-knocked little boy and forging friendships—and making his peace—with the assortment of the shelter’s other inhabitants. Where school and the shelter intersect is another test, as is the whole deal with whether he’ll attend a dance with Gianna, while the situation with his father, once revealed, brings both clarity and distinct possibilities of more heartache. This book manages to be funny and poignant on the same scale. Messner lights up bright as a bulb with the story.
All the Wind in the World
By Samantha Mabry
Published by Algonquin Young Readers
Age 14 and up
For her vision of the near, hazardous future that nonetheless bears a strain of magical thinking, author Samantha Mabry has said she in part drew on memories of her Grandmother Garcia, “who would wash money in the kitchen sink to rinse off any bad spirits.” The vision comes through richly, and starkly, in this novel, which walks dark and dances romantic.
If there is such a thing as these other-worldly essences, they come to haunt the lives of Sarah Jacqueline Crow, known as Jac, and James Holt, a young couple in love and sexual entrancement, who—at this of all times of life—must hide their love in the unforgiving desert that the western part of the country has become. Leery transplants from a brutal Chicago, they dream of a home in an east where nature is still nurturing and pretty, with starvation and hopelessness less close at hand—an uncanny reversal by Mabry of historical movements from East Coast to West. Running counter to its name is The Real Marvelous, the Texas ranch that lures Jac and James with word of work, and disquiets them with its reputation for violent, sometimes super-natural hardship. A work camp in the most appalling vein and steeped in rumors that it’s somehow cursed, it harshly employs an army of “jimadors” to harvest its maquey crops, which help produce tequila, one of the many liquors that contribute to an economic system intended to further subdue and control the country’s population. Overlords there are, too, here the wealthy Gonzalez family that owns the ranch and its sporadic beauty, a father and two motherless daughters in a big white house that contrasts with everything Jac and James must struggle with. Physical afflictions are commonplace, executions often for the slightest misstep are the norm. The overwhelming deprivation is fed upon by a doom-spouting “prophet,” Eva, surging down from the north, who throws herself into the hunt for a witch she claims is resident on the ranch, and the cause of such disasters as deadly bee swarms and dust storms.
Mabry’s pairing of natural environment and magic realism is striking and effective. It enters also into the shifting emotional lives of James and Jac. Jac considers herself someone who doesn’t believe in “signs and symbols, but in reality, facts,” yet she can’t remain immune from wondering. For her independent-mindedness, which has a reckless streak, she, too, ends up a prisoner awaiting execution. All her beliefs are put into question, especially her faith in James and what they’ve become together. Mabry has also cited as influences writers Cormac McCarthy and Emily St. John Mandel, and Terrence Malick’s iconic movie Days of Heaven. They are with her in spirit in this novel..