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 Tony Johnston and Maria Elena Fontanot de Rhoads
Published by Abrams Books
Age 12 and up
They call it the Beast—la Bestia in Spanish. But the train that carries endless roof loads of boys, desperate for a better chance up north than their Mexican homeland can provide, is actually many. Its illegal passengers rotate on and off the hurtling behemoths at the whim of bone-breaking police, hardcore gangs, merciless thieves, and violent hunger. Official authority is travel agent to corruption, degradation has deep pockets, and atrocity indulges in a fondness for invention. Setbacks are the constant, turning weeks into months, and months into years. Practically all that 12-year-old Manuel has packed is his homespun faith in basic goodness. It’s fragile ballast against the jolts the Beast Rider’s itinerary has in store.
A collaboration between award-winning author Tony Johnston and psychotherapist Maria Elena Fontanot de Rhoads, a specialist in childhood trauma, Beast Rider has created an unwavering yet poetic voice for Manuel to tell the story, speak fact through fiction, and read aloud known geography from a novel’s map. Its magical realism is a dialect evolved from the folklore of Manuel’s childhood, a medium with which Beast Rider translates multitudes of lived experiences—reported, unrecorded, too often a disregarded staple of our news cycles—into a painful rebuke of this country’s shameful immigration policies. It reveals occasional kindness and goodwill in villages along the iron path.
Propelling Manuel is yearning mixed with worry for his older brother, Tono, a canary in the diasporic mineshaft trying to make a go of it in Los Angeles. Sunlight is barely a sliver to its underground economy,but Tono would rather belong anywhere but to the land his family works to punishing effect every day. He’s brought their work ethic north with him, applying it to any day-laborer job and minimum-wage opening he can get his hands on, a suggestion of how radically Washington’s Build-the-Wall boosters might want to re-think their blanket embrace of deportation. La Bestia has transported Manuel the same distance without loosening the hold, both visceral and mythic, that every inch of home exerts. Both visiceral and mythic, it shifts the shapes of the visible before him, splitting his sense of the world, and demanding he choose where he belongs.
Mr. Penguin and the Lost Treasure
By Alex T. Smith
Published by Peachtree Publishers
Pronounced of belly, waddle, and downy white front, penguins have suffered a bad rap as stuffed shirts, an indignity further aggravated by the derisive penguin-suit nickname bestowed on black tie. Such attire has no place in the wardrobe of Mr. Penguin, who sports a hat pierced by an arrow, prefers tropical-weight luncheon fare, and announces he’s set up shop as a Professional Adventurer by taking out an ad in a newspaper. Alex T. Smith’s Mr. Penguin and the Lost Treasure is the first in a chapter book series, one momentous reading level up from his best-selling Claude cycle. As knowingly retro as the choice of print over Internet, it sparkles with a zest for the whodunit, a well-cocked ear for laughs, and Smith’s orange-and-black graphics—the illustrations with hints of New Yorker cartoons hatched on a jungle gym. Not to belabor who came first, the penguin or Harrison Ford, but Mr. Penguin, what with his physique, also has a nimble sidekick, the kung fu-master spider Colin. For bona fides to kick in, though, a P.A. needs a client with a case to solve. Making splashy landfall into the overly becalmed state of Mr. Penguin’s affairs, her distress writ large behind big, round Carrie Donovan glasses, Miss Boudaccia Bones, of the Museum of Extraordinary Oddities, fears for its future unless the treasure her multiply-great grandfather buried there can be found. The clock ticks loudly on the likelihood of reversing the disappearance of the museum’s greatest asset. Burglars may or may not be involved. Incumbent on Mr. Penguin is sorting through a slippery jumble of curious objects and occurrences if he’s to maintain the newly embossed title on his business cards. Tap this number into Contacts: 0111-PEN-GUIN.2 .
By Fran Wilde
Published by Abrams/Amulet
Call it a rabbit hole, a wardrobe, a tesseract, a giant peach: Eleanor and Mike, older and younger sisters on Riverland Road, are familiar enough with the gist of such stories to give them skepticism’s side-eye. Money is too tight at home. School is too in-their-faces. Their parents’ marriage is too volatile for them to wish for much beyond the kind of happy existence Eleanor embeds in stories for Mike as they huddle under the bed at night while their father beats their mother black and blue. “Magic” is what they call her ability—particularly in the face of visitors—to make the mess left over by violence invisible the next morning. Their love for her is able to make less and less sense out of why her mother isn’t part of their lives. By comparison, the close-knit families among their friends Pendra, Kalliope and Aja seem foreign to them.
The cracks in appearances greatly interest Fran Wilde. Besides which, Momma’s tidying up seems to have overlooked some fractures developing in the riverside house itself. How else to explain water seeping into the troubled girls’ bedroom, or the fact that the olden-days glass fishing float their grandmother left behind finally smashes to bits? Handily acquitting herself in the rabbit hole vein, Wilde tumbles half her insightful, empathetic story through to the other side of a river anciently designated the division between reality and fantasy, true life and imagination, science and the supernatural, dreams and the dangers nightmares contain. She matches every fear, doubt, or timid longing in the real world with a strange creature on the suddenly wayward river’s opposite bank. Their resemblance to everyday objects notwithstanding, these animals, at bitter odds over the spreading disintegration in the river boundary’s bed, are diversely possessed of uncanny powers. In Riverland, chronicles dating back matrilineal generations eddy their distinctive antiquity into an uncertain modernity with reports of magic as a birthright.