JUNIOR EDITION: New Fiction for Younger Readers searches out the best of recent releases for K through 12. Columnist Celia McGee also enjoys finding great options for teens among new novels published for adults. We hope her terrific choices get kids excited about reading, and help create the next generation of readers and writers!
Chapter Two is Missing!
By Josh Lieb, Illustrated by Kevin Cornell
Published by Razorbill/Penguin Kids
Reading a book is like walking, right? You put one foot in front of the other, and one chapter follows the next.
But what if a chapter goes missing? The question promotes a cocky little boy to breakneck amateur detective in Josh Lieb’s high-spirited Chapter Two Is Missing! See for yourself. Sure enough, where Chapter 2 belongs are just a bunch of random, faded letters that look as though their host paper had been dropped in a puddle or proverbially slobbered on by the proverbial dog.
Never fear. Summoning professional reinforcements is as easy as 1-2-babysitter, though advisably minus the overload of silly gumshoe gear that hobbles the nattily uniformed Detective McGarrigan when she shows. (Female detectives are a happy norm now. Female detectives with long white beards are off-topic).
Lieb spins a delightful hide-and-seek out of a book’s greater and lesser parts—chapter, page, word, letter, punctuation mark, exclamation cluster, typographical breathing space. The harder the boy and his police pal search for the purloined portion, the cagier the story of the story becomes. The letter M is a particular tease, disappearing midway (or -idway) to resurface in a (m)uddled pile swept together by Milo the Janitor. He also suggests several potential hiding places, and the aid of a mirror, but that seems to just make the detective duo suspicious.
Of course, it’s entirely possible, as Milo intimates, that the chapter wasn’t stolen. Maybe it ran away. Perhaps it wanted to turn its story into a thriller, or was bored with its surroundings, or was fed up with how discourteously the little boy and his senior sidekick treat Milo. Erasing rude behavior is just a little something for the large audience that this clever book deserves to keep in mind. That, and a mirror handy.
By Henry Winkler & Lin Oliver
Published by Abrams/Amulet
Fiction 101: Write what you know. In Alien Superstar, Henry Winkler, the rare celebrity kids’ books author who, together with writer/producer Lin Oliver, has a string of actually worthwhile titles to his credit, does just that. This is not to say that the Fonz is an ET from another galaxy. But he knows Hollywood like the back of his leather jacket, its geography mapped into his genes and Oliver’s, the best of its rapid-fire comedy da-dum-dummingly palpable in Alien’s bouncy humor.
Fun and funny are in short supply on the planet that young (certainly compared to his 987-year-old grandmother) Citizen Short Nose needs to escape with all six eyes, three lungs, two tongues, scaly body cover and capricious Sensory Enhancer intact, or be downgraded with the rest of his age group to robot status by the authoritarian goons in charge. Emerald-spoon fed forbidden movies from Earth by Grandma Wrinkle, he defiantly votes for freedom of expression, experience and emotion with his feet and the suction cups attached to them, aiming his spaceship for the center of the human universe. He fits right in on the back lot of Universal Studios. One fast-food stand later, he’s renamed himself Buddy C. Burger. He’s in the La-La Land of Opportunity. An accidental acting gig works out because he hilariously, if precariously, sticks to the pretense that he’s merely dressed as an alien.
The novel has many smile-inducing moving parts, but diversity is, unfussily, a given. The first friend Buddy makes is an affable, Latino teen playing a Frankenstein monster for tourists. Expanding Luis’s role to blue-jeaned guardian angel, Alien assigns him the mission almost impossible of keeping Buddy safe (this is Hollywood, after all), sound (guacamole to the rescue), and on course to parlay a viral flash of social media fame into a well-adjusted Tinseltown career. (Ignore the contradiction in terms.) At a low moment, the big-hearted visitor also finds an ally in the pretty African-American co-star of the show that has fast-tracked him past conniving rivals sniffing around his secret. Though time runs out on every ruse, and appearances deceive at a price, Alien Superstar fashions punch-lined, teachable moments from such predicaments. Follow the red carpet to the Alien Superstar sequel.2 .
Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky
By Kwame Mbalia
Published by Rick Riordan Presents
In the epically entertaining Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, John Henry doesn’t just have a hammer, as the ballad goes, he’s a god. So are the likes of Brer Rabbit, The Flying Ladies, and High John, whose names Chicago’s young Tristan Strong vaguely remembers from the folktales his Southern grandmother likes to tell, and that his best friend, Eddie, used to collect in a special journal. But Eddie has died in a bus accident that has left Tristan guilt-shaken. Apathy and depression crowd his sidewalk. He’s scoring high at beating himself up, while getting nothing but worse at the family tradition of championship boxing. His school grief counselor recommends some time away from home for the summer (in High John’s words, “You got to sit grief down and talk to it”). That’s how Tristan ends up deep in Alabama, Eddie’s strangely glowing journal clutched tight in the backseat of his grandparents’ Cadillac as it glides chariot-like onto the ancestral farmstead.
Tristan doesn’t sleep any better in the country, though. Especially unsettled by a giant oak Bottle Tree, an eerie holdover from slavery days, he’s finally awakened into the dark by a figure he takes for a roughhewn doll until she huffily informs him that she’s Gum Baby. Another name that rings a bell.
Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, the first in a series, spectacularly conveys Kwame Mbalia’s dedication to changing the landscape of folklore and fable. Drawing from the lore, legends, spirit stories and folk tales of Africa and its diaspora, his writing wants to create a mythological cosmos as readymade for younger readers as Greek mythology, European fairytales, and the magical narratives of the East. Naturally, a wood-splitting encounter with the Bottle Tree sucks Tristan and his ceaselessly trash-talking, what-doll companion through a hole ripped in nothing less than the sky of an alternate world of talking animals, approachable deities, dreadful Bone Ships (they ply the waters of Midpast), and flying rafts under heroic female command.
Intent on repairing the gaping heavens that are also the way back to his version of reality, Tristan helps fight armies of chain-metal monsters that reek of antebellum history’s moral rot. He discovers an affinity for the transformative power of storytelling. He commits to outstripping the angry Trickster God Anansi, unvanquished Taleteller Supreme, at his own game. His mind sharpened, his arsenal expands into a prowess at killer boxing. Success, Mbalia shows, only comes with having a purpose. This book is a captivating success.
By Rosaria Munda
Published by Penguin Young Readers
It’s a sad day when Latin makes a comeback in the phrase quid pro quo. So much for public discourse. Now what are the chances of any kid wanting to learn more of that ancient language, or the scribbles neatly dismissed by “it’s Greek to me?”
If this seems an odd way to introduce Rosaria Munda’s Fireborne, the dazzling first novel of her new Aurelian Cycle, it speaks to how deftly she sneaks two classics of antiquity into the full-tilt action and nuanced plot of an imagined past. The never-was of her historical fantasy, with its political intrigue, high-stakes contests, lush trappings, love of war and wars of love, is right up YA’s alley. With Plato’s Republic and Virgil’s Aeneid as her cool stealth weapons, she interrogates ideas about the city-state, and takes the measure of tragedy by evoking a certain lonely figure in flight from a burning Troy.
Tests of loyalty loom large in Fireborne’s Callipolis, a state-of-the-art capital on uneasy terms with the violent revolution out of which it rose. Partly built on bloodstained ruins, partly repurposed out of the grand edifices of its former despots, it’s architecture in service to a purportedly egalitarian new order. Elaborately codified, the system’s harshly administered meritocracy still can’t shake the dynamics of caste. But it has made best mates of Lee, secretly the royal offspring of the banished aristocracy, and Annie (short for Antigone), the daughter of serfs, since their days together in an orphanage cornerstoned in civil war. Binding them tighter than they realize is the shared trauma of having seen their families murdered in front of them. Their other best friends are their dragons.
Both are uncommonly gifted, smart, and determined to qualify for the dragon-riding elite composed of the best and brightest in the realm. The undefeated among these are eventual contenders to succeed Atreus, the reigning First Protector, a father figure and role model to Lee and Annie before his inherent duplicity, public and private, begins to erode their trust. The Dragon Rider Tournaments he mounts are exciting, his designs for education sophisticated, his schemes for civil improvement impressive—and his real intentions, a smoky swirl of lies and self-deceit. Pulled this way and that by complicated and suspenseful situations, their feelings for each other also far from plain, Lee and Annie have to reconsider their understanding of evil. Terrible decisions are forced upon them, their courage challenged, their flaws smacked up against their strengths. Munda anchors them, in splendor and in muck, alone and with other intriguing characters, in a fully realized fictional world, more of their fixating adventures on the horizon.4 .