At the heart of the latest release from Jon Scieszka, former National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, is a lesson on media literacy. The author doesn’t hide his contempt for the advertising tactics and ubiquitous sloganeering of the modern era—his protagonist Michael K. is a savvy fifth grader with a healthy dose of skepticism. That’s a quality that Scieszka is eager to instill in his readers. To foster a better understanding of the media blitz directed at today’s children, Spaceheadz includes clever, interactive Web material designed to allow readers to create their own content. Here, the former teacher spoke with Kirkus about his fifth-grade friends at Brooklyn’s P.S. 58, incorporating new technology into basic storytelling and diplomatic immunity.
Curiosity inspired Truus Matti to write her debut novel, in which two stories—one fantastic, the other realistic—intertwine. Told in alternating chapters, the book begins with a third-person account of a girl named Mouse, who arrives at a dilapidated hotel run by a fox and a rat, unable to remember her past. “I wrote…the first scene in the book more or less by accident; it came out of nowhere, and I had no idea what it was about,” says Matti. “The girl made me want to know who she was and what she was doing…So I followed her to find out.” That girl led Matti to the novel’s second plot line, told in the first person by a girl who makes her father promise to come home for her 11th birthday. When he doesn’t, the girl writes him a scathing letter only to learn that he died while touring with his orchestra.
Stowaways, sea chanteys and sirens—they’re all here in Aaron Renier’s rip-snorting new graphic novel. Drawing on motifs from sources as diverse as the great Homeric epics, Moby Dick and the snarky romp of The Pirates of the Caribbean movies, Renier reinvents adventure at sea for a new generation. The first in a series of five, Walker Bean began “as a parade of my ideas and fantasies…masquerading as an adventure story,” he says. “I wanted to use all the usual tropes—a shadowy stranger, a cursed object, the journal from an elder to come to the rescue—and try to use them in a way that worked with my personality. I wanted it to be fun to draw. And it was.” The frenzied pace of the storytelling, the cluttered chaos of the images and the faded palette, designed with colorist Alec Longstreth, combine to get readers’ hearts pumping with excitement, scrambling to turn the next page.
When Newbery Honor author Carolyn Coman (What Jamie Saw, 1995) first conceived of lovable Hope Scroggins with her collaborator, Rob Shepperson, both realized early on that the waif was a character sure to resonate with young readers. What child can’t relate to a girl whose parents are so abhorrent that they simply abandon her little sister? Hope’s response—sleeping as much as possible—brings her to the attention of the Dahl-esque World Wide Memory Bank. “From the moment we entered the Bank, we were goners,” they say. “Everything about it—the Dream Vault, the Memory Receptor, Sorters, Retrospectors—engaged us. Hope simply rose to the occasion: a champion dreamer, a terrific sister, a good sport under trying circumstances.”
A mortally ill boy is prematurely transported to the afterworld through the inept agency of Frank Gallows, a ghost wrangler on the skids. It is a creepy land, populated by specters, mummies, will-o’-the-wisps, zombies and ghostly skeletons, all under the thumb of a dark master. But it is also just the kind of place where Darwin meets God on the road to Oz. Doug TenNapel draws the copious panels in a spidery hand, with sponge-soaking colors. “Being a writer/artist isn’t like wearing two hats,” he says. “It’s like wearing two halves of a hat. I have to meticulously write the story before I know if it’s even worth drawing.” This one’s worth it, a tale of loss, discovery, phantasmagoria and return. “My children are at the age when they ask the tough questions about life and death,” says the author. This is his apocalyptic, happily-ever-after answer.
Tea is best served with droll mystery. At least, that’s what’s bountifully dished out in Maryrose Wood’s unapologetically Anglophile series opener that follows a well-established age-old tale: girl becomes governess, governess is employed at sprawling estate for three certifiably wild children, governess unearths multiple mysteries on premises. “I don’t receive many—or to be precise, any—books for middle-grade readers that combine a riff on Jane Eyre and feral children,” says Donna Bray, VP and co-publisher of Balzer + Bray. “I was powerless to resist.” Wood admits “there’s no greater satisfaction as an author than to write something so close to my own admittedly quirky heart, and to discover that readers find it engaging as well.” The book is a bona fide buffet of everything delightfully British: creaky carriages, dusty antiques, tea cakes, silken gowns, fanciful parties and…children raised by wolves. Yes, wolves.