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!
By Matt Stine and Elisabeth Weinberg, illustrated by Paige Keiser
Published by Feiwel and Friends
t couldn’t be more clear what a little girl named Lizzie wants to be when she grows up, and that’s a chef. She’s already very goal-oriented as she tells her story in the yummy Little Chef, which is also her nickname, with bespoke chef’s uniform and monogrammed hat to match. This book, by Elisabeth Weinberg, an actual chef with a popular catering company, and Matt Stine, her composer, sound designer and producer husband (his bio also notes his literary pedigree by way of his father, R.L. Stine), greets a very special day in the joyful Lizzie’s life with a well-stocked pantry of giggles and substance. She’s making Grandma’s Super Special Smashed Sweet Potatoes for none other than Grandma, an exceptionally accomplished role model and teacher in the culinary department, who’s coming over for dinner. Pressure a little? Jump up and down on your parents’ bed to wake them.
The preparations are an adventure in themselves, and are flavored with great values (as in life, only use the best ingredients), admirable aims (be your best in treating others to the best), and bouncy anecdotes (a trip to the Farmer’s Market is exciting). Lizzie isn’t so mature that she doesn’t have her meltdown moments—she almost loses it when her grandmother tells her that every chef has to independently pinpoint the secret ingredient that dishes require—or deny that smashing the sweet potatoes is her favorite part of the deal. The secret supplement Lizzie uncorks cannot be revealed, but in the emotional scheme of things, love is definitely another key component. Nor is Lizzie so immature that she cops an attitude about what she can’t or shouldn’t do, leaving peeling, chopping and the stovetop to her Mom and Dad sous-chefs, a piece of wisdom further stressed in the bonus recipe for her orange masterwork. Little readers will love this book, and, hopefully, aspiring young chefs will award it five stars.
The Haunted Serpent
By Dora M. Mitchell
Translated by Sterling Publishing
Trying to fit in at a new school is hard enough without black magic, the undead, and vile schemes for world dominance getting in the way. In Dora M. Mitchell’s appealing, sardonic detective caper The Haunted Serpent, Spaulding Meriwether has been home-schooled his whole life, moving from place to place with his great-aunt Gwen, a single-minded mystery-book writer, because his parents are too caught up in their specious TV show about the paranormal to give him the time of day—or night. But amusingly confident Spaulding is undaunted by entering sixth grade in Thedgeroot, a former gold-mining hub shabbily devoid of its old-time glory, its woods and fields riddled with people-swallowing mineshafts, its once thriving refinery a mere factory shell where puffs of smoke have nevertheless taken to materializing. He’s even sure he can figure out the reason for annoying appearances by restless corpses, though he’s just trying to mind his own newbie business, and which of the townspeople are in on a plot to employ such revenants to nefarious ends.
Spaulding is brave not to have taken his dreadful mother’s word for it that he’s “weird and boring,” an opinion shared by his classmates and teachers. Not that his entertaining self-esteem and hilarious, oddball notations in an omnipresent notebook unequivocally shield him from humiliating experiences, since he occasionally feels his haters may have a point, especially the cool crowd where he thinks he belongs. But resilience is a lucky charm. Mitchell harbors great affection for her misfit—and expresses it with excellent comic timing, starting with those sudden encounters with the real-deal paranormal, a development that could prove the social bumbler a force to reckon with. Decidedly lily-white, Spaulding ends up with the grudging help of African-American popular girl Marietta Bellwood, her far more enthusiastic, tuba-toting little sister, Lucy, and leader-of-the-jock-pack Kenny Lin, who’s Asian-American. A green glow signs on thanks to the supportive ghost of a next-door neighbor, and his pet snake, David Boa. They must battle sinister plutocrats and dastardly necromancers, creeping toxins and otherworldly pollutants for the good of the town, and the finest in themselves. Scrapping with evil is just the ticket for Spaulding to settle not for placid convention but for what he should.2 .
By Marisha Pessl
Translated by Delacorte Press
Age 12 and up
Even the best day is unlikely to stand up to being repeated forever, and the group of friends at the center of Marisha Pessl’s Neverworld Wakeisn’t having one of them. Beatrice Hartley, who narrates the story, hasn’t seen the other four in the grief-struck year following the death of her boyfriend, Jim, once the most golden of the glamorous gang. The day she finally decides to join them for a reunion of sorts, the mood is uneasy and tense. As the best-selling author of Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Pessl knows a thing or two about chronicling a charmed circle in distress, and reaffirms this in her first YA novel.
For the clubby pals, an outing to a punk rock concert, an effort to recapture happier times, ends in a rainstorm and a driving mishap on the way back to Wincroft, the lavish estate where they used to weekend during senior year at their tony boarding-school nearby. Not a friend: time. It pulls off the crux of the matter: well-intentioned townie Beatrice, who has a gift for composing “song lyrics for soundtracks to made-up movies,” discovers herself stuck with her fellow travelers in a purgatory of waking daily to the same date. That’ll be it for an agonizing infinity, according to a spooky and constant visitor called The Keeper, unless they perform a task none can bear to face. Pessl pairs their efforts to puzzle their way out of this hellish snarl with Beatrice’s attempts to piece together the muddled circumstances of Jim’s alleged suicide, sending her to grapple with the pitfalls of creativity, the treacherous angles of love, the travails of science and psychology, the uncertainty of loyalty, and bad faith in some nifty musicals. It hasn’t escaped Beatrice that none of her chums were where they claimed to have been the night she lost her beloved, but she’ll have to recognize that she also didn’t know everything she thought she did, including right inside her. Pessl’s intricate parsing of life, death and what could lie in-between has a complexity and plot that are a joy to keep pace with—and be tricked by—in a textbook example of a satisfying thriller that takes more than one possible world into account.
The Book of Essie
By Meghan MacLean Weir
Published by Alfred A. Knopf
Age 14 and up, and adult
The mating rituals of reality TV are a sight to behold, as tens of millions tune in to scripted romance, mass-produced love lives, and a groaning board of venues, hyped up to dreams of manicured bliss and the price of diamonds. Seventeen-year-old Esther Anne Hicks—Essie for short—wants no such immediate plans, if ever. But her magnetic preacher father, pastor of the Evangelical New Light Church outside Chicago, and her fanatically enabling mother have embraced the media spotlight since before she was born. Broadcasts of her family’s everyday existence, saccharine fake fests, are tenaciously popular television, life conducted in front of cameras slyly directed to work their wiles on any unwelcome event. Quietly rebellious Essie, a beauty with a devilish IQ, presents a doozy: she’s pregnant.
If Essie is to outsmart her mother’s audience-pandering plans for her, she has to come up with intrigue of her own. A taut, immersive writer, Meghan MacLean Weir has Essie pin her chess-move hopes on senior Roarke Richards, a baseball star and expected valedictorian. Roarke only knows that he doesn’t like Essie or anything she stands for, and that he desperately wishes he could afford to act on his acceptance to Columbia University, which would get him far away from his conservative hometown, along with a secret that could otherwise spell his doom. Though off-base on Essie, he gets that the Hickses’ church, fame game and evasive riches have “infected the country with a special brand of intolerance that masquerades as religion.” Essie’s child’s father lurks in its shadows, a mystery up for moral grabs.
Weir’s absorbing novel is timely and pressing. Her Essie and Roarke are two unwilling symbols longing to be human. The bargains they strike are more difficult than either of their ahead-of-the-curve minds could have conceived. They form feelings for each other that put a new spin on love, choice, and friendship, making reinvigorated acquaintance with their consciences. Weir anchors these in a social and political framework that manifests real architectural integrity. Within that structure, she faces the couple with facts that startle and disconcert, doing a fascinating number on initial impulses. In charting those transitions Weir closes in on a place not entirely away from the camera’s eye, but also where the truth can’t be hidden.4 .