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 Day the War Came
By Nicola Davies, illustrated by Rebecca Cobb
Published by Candlewick Press
If there’s a way to introduce younger children to the plight of refugees, The Day the War Came has found it. Its story of a little girl, displaced and dispossessed, mentions no countries or conflicts specifically, staying level with a child’s eye view, placing its voice in her words, and remembering events and emotions with a gentle realism. Yet it also beats to a folktale tempo of life-emptying loss, stripping the small victim of family, friends, home and homeland, sweeping her in massed flight across seas and continents. It pounds away—in the refugee camp bristling with makeshift huts, in her struggles to keep trauma at bay, in the locking of doors and gates against her when she wanders into town. She’s otherness in pigtails.
That a teacher bars her from the school, with the cutting pretext that there aren’t enough chairs, will hit readers her age especially hard. The throttled little spirit finally meets up with despair, reduced to huddling with it so tightly it almost stifles the sound of a boy clattering in with a certain classroom commodity. Where one chair goes, others are apt to follow. There’s magic in numbers, and more magic in more chairs. The Day the War Came pulls up a seat to hope.
Dactyl Hill Squad
By Daniel José Older
Translated by Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic
Why dinosaurs would want to stick around for the Civil War poses a good question to history. The idea that 1860s New York depended for transportation, firefighting, and other municipal services on such primeval creatures might raise sticklers’ hackles some more. But Daniel José Older’s Dactyl Hill Squad, the first in a series that grafts paleontological fantasy onto stories inspired by 19th-century events, pulls off the re-mix. Traveling on the backs of dinosteeds is lots more fun than jouncing in slow, bumpy carriages. Giant raptors, requisitioned to the battlefields, are unstoppable killing machines. Even though Magdalys Rios has a soft spot for dinos, she’s fearful for her older brother fighting down South.
Sorry, no. She needs all her courage to contend with the 1863 Draft Riots, its white holding nothing good in store for her and the rest of the Colored Orphan Asylum. The rabid attackers, unofficially aided by law enforcement, make quick work of the theater housing the all-black Shakespeare troupe that Magdalys has shepherded a small group to see. The ominously named city magistrate Richard Riker makes sure the orphanage is next.
Little about Older’s action heroes toes the norm. On the terrifying flight from those smoldering ruins, the acting company’s lead—a woman, locked-and-loaded—is the guide. Magic lies in Magdalys’s quirky new ability to dino-talk, getting her little band to Brooklyn and its free black community of Dactyl Hill, where the winged beings known as dactyls do the prehistoric honors. The unknown whereabouts of the orphans left behind reek of the underhanded Riker and a larger conspiracy to keep slavery alive, a bitter piece of war on the home front. It’s up to Magdalys and her crew, together with Brooklyn’s daring Vigilance Committee, to rout the sinister and their plotting. Older’s squad torpedoes conventional history-telling as surely as the aquatic mosasurusus Magdalys steers whoops ironsides. He mines history for fresh takes on character and command, friendship and prejudice, the nature of cities and fantasy’s blasting charge. Above Whitman’s ferry, great beasts are on the wing.2 .
The Perfect Candidate
By Peter Stone
Published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Age 12 and up
Any novel that casts a sharp eye over politics’ current state as manifest in our nation’s capital deserves bi-partisan approbation. Peter Stone’s first foray for teens, The Perfect Candidate is a ripped-from-the-newsfeed murder mystery about political corruption, power chasing, and money—dirty money, laundered money, hush money, not-enough money—flooding Washington’s swampscape at record highs. Though 17-year-old Cameron Carter likes to call things as he sees them, and is very funny in the process, taking a probe to the mounting muck isn’t what he expected out of the summer internship he’s managed to snag in his local California congressman’s office. Washington gives him definite pause as dead bodies, and gutted souls, float to the surface.
No matter how dry his humor, Cameron is an idealist whose straight-shooter approach and unassuming background set him apart from the suave duplicity of the entitleds he streams to work with on Capitol Hill every day. But idealism and ambition can become partners in crime, and the harder Cameron falls for a place weaponized with cutthroat aspirations, the harder it is for him to keep his dreams from tarnishing. Romancing the glamorous daughter of the Mexican ambassador and doing some seat-of-the-pants work with the CIA, he gives it his best, with domino-effective results. Funny and depressing, The Perfect Candidate sums up the sorry situation along the Potomac, and holds firmly to the paddle on the creek.
A Room Away from the Wolves
By Nova Ren Suma
Published by Algonquin Young Readers
Age 14 and up
When each day feels like a mistake waiting to happen, it’s not uncool to try to figure out why. But ever since her mother saddled her with a stepfamily eight years earlier, short-circuiting their close life together, 17-year-old Bina Tremper has been a trouble-maker in denial about her wrong-doings. A stubborn outcast at home and school, she’s made an extended play for angry loner, and with one last party to crash, she’s under her mother’s orders to go cool off for a month of the summer in New York City, two hours south of the small town where they never meant to stay. In a Nova Ren Suma novel, though, no one should mess with the past. Bina does, setting history on repeat by shunning the family friends she’s supposed to stay with for Catherine House, the same Village boarding house her mother lived in as an aspiring actress and bright-eyed rebel just out of high school.
The establishment groans under the spectral and the tragic, having been willed to coming generations by an heiress a century earlier as a refuge from the world’s unexpected brutalities not long before she plunged to her death from its rooftop. Home to an assortment of young women, and inner sanctum to the sepulchral cult they center on her, it dumb-waiters up the eerie. Whether suicide or accident set that in motion remains under debate, but always a heartbeat away from the questions crowding Bina’s already unsettled mind about where exactly she has landed. Since she’s the one relaying events, the trap-doors only multiply in the mysteries ensconced in Catherine House. A writer unafraid of both haunting and heartbreak, Suma has set some remarkable ghosts to dance.4 .