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 Little Red Fort
By Brenda Maier, illustrated by Sonia Sanchez
Published by Scholastic Press
José and his tendency to say “no way” where anything outside his comfort zone is concerned has two brothers who echo that sentiment. In Brenda Maier’s fun, freeing The Little Red Fort, a variation on the classic folktale “The Little Red Hen,” the idea that their sister, Ruby, a mere girl, wants to build a fort seems especially ridiculous to them.
Conceded, Ruby’s initial inspiration springs from a bunch of old boards. But her building tools really start with her mind, which is “always full of ideas,” and determination. Maier’s droll tale celebrates enthusiasm and an ardor for learning, a fast-witted design sense, and the ability to improvise. They run circles around laziness, mockery, playing silly games, and resorting to various electronic distractions. Here’s a girl in a family in which she manages to merrily rise above the dismissive attitude of boys, additionally unpacking from her toolkit reams of gracious willpower and generous patience toward the immature behavior of others. It’s telling that such traits find favor with more evolved individuals: her parents and a grandmother materialize as willing assistants to her ambitious project.
The results are very excellent indeed, Ruby’s precise calculations and overflowing creativity expressed in a just-right backyard bastion. The culmination is a rustic exterior and an interior where her dedication to her vision has rolled up its sleeves to integrate a hodge-podge of found furnishings and prized toy-land possessions. In sum: irresistible. An overwhelming pleasure of The Little Red Fort is to watch the brothers’ disdain crumble against a concept so deftly turned genuine object. They have such fun helping with finishing touches—Ruby’s Fort (as its sign proclaims) needs flower boxes planted, a mailbox, and its hallmark paint color—that it flies right by them that they and their mini-machismo are not in charge, and the advantages of collaboration have further won the day. Brenda Maier has unassailably built her case.
The Elephant Thief
By Jane Kerr
Published by Chicken House/Scholastic
Spotting an elephant making its bedizened way through the Scottish countryside would certainly be a gob-smacking sight. Picture that occurring, furthermore, in 1872, when few in those parts had even heard of the imposing beings. Yet avid news-followers the Victorian world over were privy to just such excitement and wonder that spring, which serves as the historical underpinning of Jane Kerr’s novel The Elephant Thief—delightful, breath-snatching, vibrant. In her telling, Mr. James Jameson, impresario of the Belle Vue Zoological Gardens in Manchester, acquires at auction much of a bankrupt Edinburgh menagerie, inclusive of star attraction Maharajah the Magnificent, then accepts a make-or-break bet from a rival zoo owner that the croft-sized elephant won’t make it the 200 miles to Manchester from Scotland’s capital in a week.
Enlisting a scrawny young Indian prince, His Royal Highness Dandip of Delhi, to make the difference seems in the same vicinity of unlikely. Most of all to the lavishly dressed prince, in reality a “slum urchin” orphan Jameson has plucked up out of the criminal underground for his looks—the little pickpocket has never met anyone else who’s “brown”—and for his acquaintance with adversity, stealth and narrow escapes. “Danny,” as the group of friends he starts to accumulate (for the first time in his life) calls him, has also lost the ability to speak, which helps and hinders alike. Once-upon-a-gangland-time abused and tortured, neither can he bear to be touched. But he and Maharajah reach their own means of communication, and Kerr finely portrays boy and beast. An instant, international sensation thanks to Jameson’s publicity wiles, the flourishing of cutthroat journalism, and a public hungry for exotic novelties, the boy who thought himself nothing but nothing dares to picture a better future (his dreams of the past contain a beautiful, long-lost mother, herself perhaps actual Indian royalty). At one point Queen Victoria busts a move.
As mishaps, delays, and perilous digressions mount, and shadowy figures darken brighter scenes, Danny’s old, distrustful side sends up flares. Are some of these developments merely part of a “con trick,” a confirmation of Jameson’s obsession with celebrity and Belle Vue attendance numbers? Are the murderous lowlifes Danny hoped to ditch catching up with him, and with his precious elephant? Where does betrayal lie? Kerr works in related corrosions—the barbarities of colonialism, the intransigence of intolerance, cruelty towards animals that reveals inhumaneness across-the-board. A section involving the incredibly rich zoophile Lord Cawthorne and his grand country estate is chilling, and instructive, in the extreme. It requires an extraordinary effort for a Danny to defy history’s odds. Jane Kerr shows how, in a bygone world she evokes in pulsating detail, he sees, hears and feels his way to being strong. He’s racing for his life.2 .
Children of Blood and Bone
By Tomi Adeyemi
Published by Henry Holt
Age 13 -18
Whether big bangs or big gods created the cosmos, it takes mighty-minded writers to create imaginary worlds. Tomi Adeyemi’s debut, Children of Blood and Bone, the first in a fantasy trilogy, proves her one of them. (She’s twenty-three, and not long out of Harvard.) In the span it takes her four suddenly intertwined young characters in the vast kingdom of Orïsha to reach a destination where magic, ignobly banished by the king, can be restored, she threads together issues of prejudice and genocide, shadism and antiquity, esoteric systems of belief and sanctioned slaughter. Against a fiercely inventive background that bears touches of West Africa and divides up types of magic by clans (and according to positive versus destructive) the forces of unfamiliar passion and first love also join the fray.
Seventeen-year-old Zélie Adebola has the potential to become a “maji,” with some of her ancient land’s strongest magic at her beck and call. But the mother who bequeathed it to her was mown down in the wholesale massacre King Saran ordered in retaliation for a dehumanizing hurt he blames on past maji actions. Anyone of that lineage—with darker skin and “ivory” hair—is a “maggot.” When Zélie and her brother, struggling to make destitute ends meet with a trip to market, find their fates abruptly tied to Princess Amari, the king’s rebellious daughter who’s escaping headlong from her hated palace existence, it’s a supernatural object she clutches that sets the trio on their tricky path. In close if ambivalent pursuit—on one of Adeyemi’s stupendous mythological creatures—is Amari’s brother, Crown Prince Inan. His encounters with Zélie, in waking life and enchanted dreams, tempt and trouble them both. Negating the king’s embittered decrees against the divine, the gods and their maji monuments are becoming a presence again, and anything is possible, including disaster.
While Adeyemi pushes her saga’s tempestuous warfare and feats of valor to gory heights, she leaves no question that they’ve met their equal in the internal turmoil her journeying seekers are experiencing. In the transformative process of learning her truths and strengths, Zélie realizes she must “learn to fight for and with others.” Inan, on the other hand, begins to recognize that the uncompromising allegiance to patriotic duty his father has scourged into him has left him no room for an independent self, which he discovers is a welter of very real feelings, and, judging from telltale signs, something more. He’s tending closer to good than evil, but neither yet gets a final say. As Children of Blood and Bone nears an ending, the futures of these two questers hang in the balance, uneasily together. As Zélie’s mother says, speaking to her from Orïsha’s great beyond, “It’s only just begun.”
Along the Indigo
By Elsie Chapman
Published by Amulet Books/Harry N. Abrams
Age 14 and up
Suicide is supposed to be life’s loneliest act. But in Glory, a small town on a sweltering West Coast, it’s a local tourist attraction, and myths are its souvenirs. In her prodigious Along the Indigo, Elsie Chapman leaves out nothing of their origins in grief, violence, ghostliness and loss. The lore originated in a notorious murder-suicide at the tag end of the 19th century’s Gold Rush, giving rise to the superstition that those who die by their own hand (which has continued in large numbers) will find redemption if they first scoop up dirt from the lush covert along the Indigo River where the tragic, and usually unexplained, acts take place. Another pastime is identifying citizens who can talk with the dead. Worse for high school junior Marsden Eldridge, the covert belongs to her family, as did the depressed gold-seeker who put the town on sorrow’s map.
This is a chokehold of a book that deserves an adult readership as well as YA. Persisting with life despite isolation is Chapman’s subject, too. Marsden’s schoolmates shun her not just because rumors of dire magic cling to her and her loved ones, but also because she’s partially of Chinese descent. Dark reflections pool beyond the river, to a bad business Marsden conducts with the dead, and to the quaint boardinghouse where she lives with her mother and younger sister, which doubles as a brothel by night, counting her mother among its “girls.” On top of Marsden’s moving-target self-questioning and murky guilt about her father’s suicide eight years before, she’s under increasing pressure to join the gals-for-hire. This makes it even harder to protect her sweet but precocious little sister from the same outcome. This puts a constant strain on Marsden’s need to escape Glory’s split personality, seamy and venal ventures serving as the underbelly to an outdoor-adventures and vintage American vibe.
Guilt is a form of suffering Chapman penetrates with drill-bit understanding. It has likewise taken up residence in Jude, the part-African American senior Marsden equates with smoldering cool and peer-group success, until they connect over his adored older brother’s corpse and its self-inflicted gunshot wound. This superlative novel refuses to sugarcoat, does wonders with teenage relationships, and skillfully flips expectations to get at what it means to unbury the hidden. Secrets and mysteries send out tendrils everywhere. Engaging with them is a matter of salvation.4 .