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 Chinese Emperor’s New Clothes
By Ying Chang Compestine, illustrated by David Roberts
Published by Abrams Books for Younger Readers
Smarts aren’t always a question of age. And outsmarting a bunch of corrupt, bumbling grownups as a mere nine-year-old has got to be up there with ice cream and best friends. Or, in The Chinese Emperor’s New Clothes, with the parade on Chinese New Year’s Day and combatting inequality. Author Ying Chang Compestine was young during Communism’s Cultural Revolution, her love of reading and storytelling nourished by often-forbidden books that she and her family had to hide for fear of punishment or exile to labor camps. Among that reading was Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes, and she has ingeniously adapted it into a story informed by a passion for her Chinese heritage and just rewards. She tweaks its message for her own purposes, which include introducing the charming and impressive young emperor Ming Da. He wants to rid his empire of his venal, conniving, throne-eying ministers, and compensate his country’s impoverished by winning back for them the wealth his untrustworthy advisors have stolen from him. (No matter what, among the blessings he can count is that his story’s illustrator is the David Roberts of Ada Twist, Scientist; Rosie Revere, Engineer; and Iggy Peck, Architect.) In this version, the emperor makes sure his tailors are allies, plenty of burlap rice bags are on hand, and someone knows how to paint designs on clothing instead of extravagantly encrusting it with gold thread and jewels. The results of honesty triumphing over dishonesty have a universal appeal. Fools are made of the ministers, new counselors picked from among the honorable, and Ming Da shines as a model for all ages—with some very hip and planet-friendly new clothes.
The Serpent’s Secret (Book One of Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond)
By Sayantani Dasgupta illustrated by Vivienne To
Published by Scholastic
In Parsippany, NJ, it’s definitely not cool to be named Kiran (oh, yeah, worse: short for Kiranmala), or to live in a rickety house with a bare-naked front yard (forget the weird so-called snake ditch your Indian immigrant father has dug) while surrounded by lushly landscaped McMansions. The insult piled atop such injuries is worrying that your parents truly believe you’re an Indian princess with magical powers, not just the isolated brown-skinned kid about to turn twelve they’ve forced to dress as this silly royal whenever costumes are called for. Life isn’t always fair, though—hold that thought—and on her twelfth birthday, this same know-it-all, in-her-head cut-up gets a visit from a marauding monster, or rakkhosh, straight out of her parents’ West Bengali folktales. She rumbles with two princely brothers on winged horses. Her parents appear to have disappeared. In search of them she travels, with these two cute, if tensely related boys, to another, strictly not “2-D” dimension. That middle-school science curriculum? Never a waste of time.
For all that it’s an ancient, exotic domain connected geographically to demon lands, “Mountains of Illusion,” seas awash in rubies, black-hole equivalents, black-matter creatures, star babies studying with a certain Einstein-ji, and an underworld ruled by a Serpent King whom Kiran has to accept as her birth father—she’s finally in a place where people look like her. She’s also genetically tight with the moon. Sayatani Dasgupta, herself a second-generation Indian-American, hits the rakkhosh fang on the head in a dexterous novel. It advocates for standing out rather than blending in, comprehending emotional and cosmological bonds between darkness and light, switching embarrassment to pride, and coming into your own by sorting the good from the bad and right from wrong. She knows her stuff.2 .
The Journey of Little Charlie
By Christopher Paul Curtis
Published by Scholastic
Search the antebellum South for one of the unlikeliest figures to tell a story enmeshed in the Fugitive Slave Act, an enslaved family’s harrowing escape to freedom, and a probing assessment of an irredeemable slave catcher, and Little Charlie Bobo it would be. Yet thanks to award-winning author Christopher Paul Curtis, another wonder is this overgrown twelve-year-old’s tendency to observations that breathe suspense into a series of events that start out grim and show few signs of getting better. The son of destitute white sharecroppers ‘round about Possum Moan, South Carolina (his Pap and Ma, the objects of what he can barely articulate as his love), Charlie has had fear, ignorance, and hatred of black people bred into him. Still, he’s not happy when his father’s death launches him on a journey in the role of what amounts to indentured apprentice to the monstrous, slave-chasing overseer of the nearby Tanner plantation. A revolting excuse of a human being riddled with awful secrets, Cap’n Buck’s craven destination is Detroit, and eventually Canada. Their ugly quest and its gripping scenes gradually prick an unsuspecting Charlie’s conscience. His slow-as-molasses transformation is couched, like the rest of the novel, in the rough-hewn, dialect-laden voice Curtis has perfectly fashioned for him. With Mark Twain on one shoulder and a graphic knowledge of an unpardonably shameful period in American history on the other, Curtis shocks and delights simultaneously.
The Book of Pearl
By Timothee de Fombelle
Published by Candlewick Press
Translated by Sarah Ardizzone and Sam Gordon
Age 12 and up
You’re not supposed to qualify for teen status until you believe that fairy stories are just for little kids. But Timothee de Fombelle’s isn’t. An absorbing novel that skillfully tumbles together history, fairytales and fiction,The Book of Pearl keeps its readers guessing, from once-upon-a-time to in-these-times, happily-ever-after to first love’s heartache, fables’ realities to a surreal plot’s bated breaths. As if in a dream—or a present-day myth—our nameless narrator, who cycles back and forth between the age of fourteen and others, inevitably loses his way in a swampy French forest. He stumbles upon a fascinating riverbank house and the company of Joshua Pearl, not only a white-haired remnant of some of the 20th century’s most devastating eras, but an exile from a different realm altogether. De Fombelle’s ability to summon both a wholly original dominion of fantasy and “the one time, the one place, where they don’t believe in fairies, or tales” allows for a harsh variation on make-believe paralleled by the rise of European fascism, its horrific consequences, and the kinds of heroism that arose to defeat it. Sifted impeccably through a “marshmallow” shop in Paris’s Jewish quarter (the French word for the sweet isguimauve, and its history is telling), the novel’s elaborate adventure story, told through affecting human experience and its fairytale other, takes many different kinds of time to unfurl, and spellbinds with every one.4 .