Two orphans, a witch and a girl who laughs at death: Each shares the lens of protagonist in Newbery winner Schlitz’s fully satisfying gothic novel.
Parsefall and Lizzie Rose assist a wicked puppeteer, Grisini, with his London street shows in exchange for board and crumbs in a Dickensian boardinghouse complete with quirky landlady and ill-behaved dogs. Clara Wintermute is a privileged girl living in the shadow of her siblings, who all died from eating diseased watercress (picky Clara made her twin eat hers). Clara demands the puppet show for her birthday, and shortly after the ominous performance, she becomes trapped in some form she can’t fathom. Grisini is suspected, and the orphans are drawn into a dangerous ploy orchestrated by a dying witch who needs a child to steal something precious from her. Each character is a little horrible: Parsefall is a selfish thief, but this neediness gives him a keen empathy and daring. Lizzie Rose is bossy, but her yearning for her lost family keeps them together. Clara is egotistical, but her steely will saves them all. The witch is more horrible than good, but she is a little bit good, like the chocolate in the box that only grown-ups like. The shifting perspective among these characters and cumulative narrative development (echoing Dickens’ serials) create a pleasingly unsettling tension.
Schlitz’s prose is perfect in every stitch, and readers will savor each word.
(Historical fantasy. 9-13)
The author of A Tale Dark and Grimm (2010) starts over—sending young Jack and Jill on a fresh quest for self-knowledge through trials and incidents drawn (stolen, according to the author) from a diverse array of European folk and fairy tales.
Foolishly pledging their lives to finding the long-lost Seeing Glass, cousins Jack and Jill, with a three-legged talking frog to serve as the now-requisite comical animal sidekick, set out from the kingdom of Märchen. They climb a beanstalk, visit a goblin market and descend into a fire-belching salamander’s lair (and then down its gullet). In a chamber of bones (“It gave new meaning to the term rib vaulting”), they turn the tables on a trio of tricksy child eaters. Injecting authorial warnings and commentary as he goes, Gidwitz ensures that each adventure involves at least severe embarrassment or, more commonly, sudden death, along with smacking great washes of gore, vomit and (where appropriate) stomach acid. Following hard tests of wit and courage, the two adventurers, successful in both ostensible and real quests, return to tell their tales to rapt children (including one named “Hans Christian,” and another “Joseph,” or “J.J.”) and even, in the end, mend relations with their formerly self-absorbed parents.
Not so much a set of retellings as a creative romp through traditional and tradition-based story-scapes, compulsively readable and just as read-out-loudable.
A tempestuous mother-daughter relationship makes up the centerpiece of O’Connor’s latest carefully researched and simultaneously fresh and funny Olympian portrait.
Snatched down to the Underworld in the wake of a screaming fight with her mother Demeter (“Butt out of my life!!” “You ungrateful brat”), raging adolescent Kore (meaning, generically “The Maiden”) initially gives her quiet, gloomy captor Hades a hard time too. After grabbing the opportunity to give herself a thorough makeover and changing her name to Persephone (“Bringer of Destruction”), though, she takes charge of her life—so surely that, when offered the opportunity to return to her remorseful mom, she lies about having eaten those pomegranate seeds so she can spend half of each year as Queen of the Dead. O'Connor expertly captures both the dramatic action and each character’s distinct personality—Demeter in particular, with her big hair and temper to match, is a real piece of work—in easy-to-follow graphic panels. Effortlessly folding in other familiar and not-so-familiar tales of figures associated with his title character, he opens with an eerie guided tour of Hades’ realm, closes with fact boxes about each of the major players and in between ingeniously preserves the old tale’s archetypal quality without ever losing sight of its human dimension.
An outstanding addition to a first-rate series.
(notes, study questions, resource lists)
(Graphic mythology. 8-14)
Once and Then (2010, 2011) blend into Now in today's Australia as Dr. Felix Salinger, 80, relates his childhood and shows his present to his 11-year-old granddaughter, narrator Zelda.
What occurs in their todays smoothly links the old story of Felix's horrific childhood in Nazi-controlled Poland with sometimes-happy, sometimes-unpleasant events in a small bush town. The girl is staying with Felix because her physician parents are in Darfur to help its people through a modern genocidal catastrophe. Local girls bully Zelda in the opening scene, and readers should be shocked and frightened by this experience. When Felix meets the bullies, in his anger he says, "Don't you know anything?"—a sharp echo of the very young Zelda of decades ago. Today's Zelda is named for her, but it is a weight, since the girl of the present feels she cannot live up to that other, long-dead girl, hanged by the Germans for an act of defiance that allowed Felix to escape the noose. A bush fire of horrendous size, fury and speed tests the mettle of the two, and Gleitzman's description of it is brilliant in its realism. Readers of the first two books will recognize a great deal, and those who have not should read them to gain a fuller picture of the years before and those in which we live.
A fine, taut novel full of understanding.
(Historical fiction. 9-12)
After being home-schooled for years, Auggie Pullman is about to start fifth grade, but he’s worried: How will he fit into middle school life when he looks so different from everyone else?
Auggie has had 27 surgeries to correct facial anomalies he was born with, but he still has a face that has earned him such cruel nicknames as Freak, Freddy Krueger, Gross-out and Lizard face. Though “his features look like they’ve been melted, like the drippings on a candle” and he’s used to people averting their eyes when they see him, he’s an engaging boy who feels pretty ordinary inside. He’s smart, funny, kind and brave, but his father says that having Auggie attend Beecher Prep would be like sending “a lamb to the slaughter.” Palacio divides the novel into eight parts, interspersing Auggie’s first-person narrative with the voices of family members and classmates, wisely expanding the story beyond Auggie’s viewpoint and demonstrating that Auggie’s arrival at school doesn’t test only him, it affects everyone in the community. Auggie may be finding his place in the world, but that world must find a way to make room for him, too.
A memorable story of kindness, courage and wonder.
Twelve-year-old P.K. “Pinky” Pinkerton was born with a poker face—he can’t show or read emotion—but it’s not until he lands in Nevada Territory’s silver-mining country that he comes to terms with the hand he’s dealt.
This fast-paced and deadpan-funny Wild West adventure is Pinky’s first-person account, scrawled out as “last words” on ledger sheets in a mine shaft while three desperados hunt him down. These outlaws, seeking something valuable Pinky's Sioux ma had left behind, murdered his foster parents. Pinky narrowly escapes, jumping a stage to “Satan’s Playground,” or Virginia City of 1862, with its colorful mix of greedy gunslingers, “Celestials,” “Soiled Doves” and even Sam Clemens with the occasional jarring witticism. Best of all, he runs into Poker Face Jace who teaches him how to read people’s feet, “the most honest part of a man’s body.” Pinky is likable. A wannabe detective, he’s resourceful and smart, gutsy but not foolhardy…and partial to black coffee. Jace’s detailed lessons in human “tells” drag on a smidge, but readers will fully grasp how thirsty Pinky is for this information that’s more precious to him than silver. Wonderfully dry humor, vivid sensory descriptions of the mountain town and a genuinely appealing protagonist make this a standout.
A rich vein of wisdom runs through this highly entertaining, swashbuckling series debut.
(1862 map of Virginia City, glossary)
(Historical fiction. 10-14)
Young Mr. Snicket seems to always ask the wrong questions.
In the basin of a bay drained of seawater, where giant needles extract ink from octopi underground, sits Stain’d-by-the-Sea, the mostly deserted town where 12-year-old Lemony Snicket takes his first case as apprentice to chaperone S. Theodora Markson. They have been hired by Mrs. Murphy Sallis to retrieve a vastly valuable statue of the local legend, the Bombinating Beast, from her neighbors and frenemies the Mallahans. Nothing’s what it seems…well, the adults are mostly nitwits…and Snicket is usually preoccupied with someone he left in the city doing something he should be helping her do. With the help and/or hindrance of girls Moxie and Ellington, can Snicket keep his promises and come close to solving a mystery? Author Snicket (aka Daniel Handler) returns with a tale of fictional-character Snicket’s early years, between his unconventional education and his chronicling of the woes of the Baudelaires. Intact from his earlier series are the gothic wackiness, linguistic play and literary allusions. This first in a series of four is less grim and cynical and more noir and pragmatic than Snicket’s earlier works, but just as much fun.
Fans of the Series of Unfortunate Events will be in heaven picking out tidbit references to the tridecalogy, but readers who’ve yet to delve into that well of sadness will have no problem enjoying this weird and witty yarn
. (Mystery. 8-12)
A seventh-grade boy who is coping with social and economic issues moves into a new apartment building, where he makes friends with an over-imaginative home-schooled boy and his eccentric family.
Social rules are meant to be broken is the theme of this bighearted, delightfully quirky tale, and in keeping with that, Stead creates a world where nothing is as it seems. Yet the surprises are meticulously foreshadowed, so when the pieces of the puzzle finally click in, the readers’ "aha" moments are filled with profound satisfaction. When an economic downturn forces Georges’ family to move out of their house and into an apartment, it brings Georges into contact with Safer, a home-schooled boy about the same age, and his unconventional but endearing family—and a mystery involving their possibly evil neighbor, Mr. X. At school, Georges must grapple with another type of mystery: why his once–best friend Jason “shrugged off” their lifelong friendship and suddenly no longer sits with him at lunch. Instead, Jason now sits at the cool table, which is controlled by a bully named Dallas, who delights in tormenting Georges. It would be unfair to give anything away, but suffice it to say that Georges resolves his various issues in a way that’s both ingenious and organic to the story.
How Ivan confronts his harrowing past yet stays true to his nature exemplifies everything youngsters need to know about courage.
Living in a "domain" of glass, metal and cement at the Big Top Mall, Ivan sometimes forgets whether to act like a gorilla or a human—except Ivan does not think much of humans. He describes their behavior as frantic, whereas he is a peaceful artist. Fittingly, Ivan narrates his tale in short, image-rich sentences and acute, sometimes humorous, observations that are all the more heartbreaking for their simple delivery. His sorrow is palpable, but he stoically endures the cruelty of humans until Ruby the baby elephant is abused. In a pivotal scene, Ivan finally admits his domain is a cage, and rather than let Ruby live and die in grim circumstances, he promises to save her. In order to express his plea in a painting, Ivan must bravely face buried memories of the lush jungle, his family and their brutal murder, which is recounted in a brief, powerful chapter sure to arouse readers’ passions. In a compelling ending, the more challenging question Applegate poses is whether or not Ivan will remember what it was like to be a gorilla. Spot art captures poignant moments throughout.
Utterly believable, this bittersweet story, complete with an author’s note identifying the real Ivan, will inspire a new generation of advocates.
There couldn’t be a more likable family of thieves.
The tightknit, affable and affectionate Grimjinx clan is trouble in Vengekeep. They steal (not from anyone poor or weak) and nimbly avoid prosecution. Ma’s a master forger, Da an expert thief. Little sister Aubrin (terrific nickname: Jinxface) is an ace pickpocket. But 12-year-old Jaxter, the narrator, is clumsy. Lock-picking evades him. “Every year it became clearer: I really wasn’t a very good thief.” Jaxter excels at “beating magic with nonmagical means,” though: His carefully mixed plant/herb pastes dissolve magical protections on locks and loot. When a tapestry meant to predict Vengekeep’s future reveals, astonishingly, that the Grimjinxes are “saviors,” readers will giggle as the con emerges. And then the con becomes deadly. The (faked) tapestry’s fabric is “fateskein,” which means its ominous images will come true. Woe is Ma, who unknowingly used fateskein in the weaving; woe is Vengekeep, now truly destined for lethal plagues. Can Jaxter traverse enough land beyond his familiar town-state to gather the plants and spiderbat milk that might dissolve the fateskein? He’s no crackerjack thief, but he has heart and unflagging humor. This funny and serious series opener features action, twists and pleasingly original vocabulary, such as the swear “zoc” (as in “Zoc that”) and the expression “bangers,” which means, roughly, “awesome.” Immediate danger is averted, intriguing questions hover for next time, and Jaxter’s headed down a fresh path.
It’s hard not to like a main character who brings a lab coat and briefcase to elementary school.
In one panel of this third outing for Mal and his talking dog, Chad, a boy is wearing a hat shaped like a giraffe. This is never explained, except that he’s auditioning for the talent show. The real reason for the hat, of course, is that McCranie likes to draw giraffes. It’s the same reason there’s a giant bust of Albert Einstein on the lawn of Mal’s school. Mal is a boy inventor, which gives the artist a chance to draw a clock with a robot hand popping out of it. “Why not invent an alarm clock that wakes you up gently…?” Mal asks rhetorically. The hand, he notes, “tenderly pats you on the head until you wake up.” Kid inventors are not popular at Einstein Elementary. Mal’s crush, Megan, won’t even invite him to her birthday party. Sometimes Mal will glance at her across the room, and she doesn’t look back. These scenes are drawn with as much skill as the giraffes and robots, and they are heartbreaking. In another panel, Mal sees Megan and skips into the air with joy. He’s a foot off the ground, and the tiny picture shows exactly how it feels to be in elementary school and in love.
This emotional honesty alone is a reason to buy this book; the giraffe and Einstein are the icing on McCranie’s cake. (Graphic fiction. 8-11)
A motley assortment of human experimental subjects and faerie exiles take on a New Jersey cereal company run by eldritch management for nefarious purposes.
With an off-the-wall sensibility that fans of the author’s True Meaning of Smekday (2007) will recognize with delight, Rex kicks off a planned trilogy. He brings together sixth-grade outsider Scottish Play Doe (an actor’s son, surprise), young genius Erno Utz and his even brighter supposed twin Emily, a crusty old leprechaun and like unconventional allies to be hunted by agents of the huge Goodco Cereal Company—producers of Burlap Crisp™, Honey Frosted Snox™. These and similar products enjoy a wild popularity that can be ascribed to the literal truth of the company motto: “There’s a Little Bit of Magic in Every Box!” The author tucks in portrait illustrations and hilariously odd TV-commercial storyboards, along with a hooded Secret Society, figures from Arthurian legend, magical spells and potions, a certain amount of violence, many wonderful throwaway lines (“Yeh may have a tarnished glamour about yeh, sure. Like a celebrity’s daughter.”) and tests of character with often surprising outcomes. All in all, it’s a mad scramble that culminates in the revelation of a dastardly plot that will require sequels to foil.
A massive explosion at the end only sets that evil scheme back a bit; stay tuned for further strange and exhilarating developments.
Mom said there was magic in the woods…she probably didn’t mean anything like this.
Ten-year-old city boy Rufus is staying at his grandmother's house on the edge of a forest for a few days without his parents. Grammy's idea of fun is prune juice and soap operas, so Rufus decides to explore the woods. He meets a girl named Penny, but she's as friendly as a rock. Her older sister, Aurora, tells Rufus Penny's friendlier than she seems, so he doesn't give up on her. When looking for her in the woods, Rufus finds a glowing necklace in a tree. After reading the word on the back, he turns into Bigfoot! Not only is he big, red and hairy, but he can also talk to animals. Sidney the flying squirrel helps him get home. There's danger in the forest as well as magic, and when Penny disappears, Rufus (and Sidney) use the totem to effect a rescue. Canadian author Torres’ first in a new series of graphic novels has magic, humor and just a hint of menace. Easy-reading text, all in speech bubbles, will appeal to a wide range of readers. Hicks’ bright and glossy cinematic panels are full of action; readers will almost smell the green of the trees. This one gets everything just right.
Be prepared for young Sasquatch fans roaring for more.
(Graphic fantasy. 6-11)
An orphaned boy in Russia survives as a member of a pack of dogs.
Ivan is only 4 years old when he runs away to the streets of Moscow. At first, he is taken in by a scruffy group of children under one adult’s control. They live in the subway stations, begging and stealing food. He soon befriends and is adopted by a small group of dogs and becomes one of them. They survive on the trains in the winter and in the forest during the summer. Ivan keeps a button belonging to his (probably dead) mother as a talisman and remembers the fairy tales she read to him. Increasingly, his time with the dogs provides nourishment for both his hungry belly and his soul. Threats are ever present in the form of police, gangs of teens and wild animals in the forest. Two years later he is captured, and after months of care, he regains his humanness. Pyron has based her story on magazine articles about a Russian feral child, one of hundreds of thousands whose lives were disrupted by the dissolution of the Soviet Union. She presents Ivan’s story as a first-person narrative in beautifully composed writing enhanced by Ivan’s visual acuity and depth of emotion.
Terrifying, life-affirming and memorable.
(author’s note, bibliography)
A teenage boy becomes a spy in Nazi-occupied Norway.
After the Germans invade his country in 1940, Espen goes from a life of school, Scouts and soccer games to delivering underground newspapers. Gradually, he advances to transporting secret documents via bicycle or skis and spying on Gestapo locations for the intelligence branch of the Resistance. Along the way, he navigates relationships with a beloved best friend who has joined the Nazis, his younger sister and peers who share his passion for opposition, as well as a budding romance with Solveig, who wears a red stocking hat signaling displeasure with the new regime. Newbery Honor winner Preus (Heart of a Samurai, 2010) infuses the story with the good-natured humor of a largely unified, peace-loving people trying to keep their sanity in a world gone awry. Based on a true story, the narrative is woven with lively enough daily historical detail to inspire older middle-grade readers to want to learn more about the Resistance movement and imitate Espen’s adventures. A selectively omniscient narrator moves from sister Ingrid’s diaries to the inner thoughts of Espen’s nemesis, Aksel. Preus also incorporates a Norse myth about Odin to shed light on what it means to be wise, the possibility of knowing too much and how to resist shadowing the mountain of hope.
A middle-schooler writes a kids’ novel; an author writes an engaging, amiable read—and, presto, a tale about a boy nicknamed Houdini turns out magical.
When your name is John Smith, you need to have something going for you. What this 13-year-old—alas, no relation to the dude of Pocahontas fame—has is a fascination with the master escape artist. After an author’s visit to his classroom, John creates a novel, formed from the very novel kids are reading, and devises a series of lists to guide him. He also relies on adventures with his two best buds; a misunderstood Vietnam vet and his pit bull; and the neighborhood bully. By turns poignant and downright hilarious, Houdini’s story/novel is delivered in a voice that’s wonderfully authentic. Johnson expertly handles real male middle school friendships, issues and angst and doesn’t avoid some tough contemporary realities: Domestic troubles, the prospect of Dad losing his job and the pain arising from his older brother going missing in Iraq are handled realistically but sensitively.
In the end, Houdini realizes that writing has changed him and altered his perspective on people and life. Readers will feel the same way. And just try to get kids not to make their own lists or attempt their own novels. (Fiction. 9-12)
Jamie lives in a bizarre world, where a sister can die in a bombing, and the only way to bring Mum and Dad together is by auditioning for Britain’s Biggest Talent Show.
Five years after her death, Rose remains foremost in his parents’ minds, “living” in her urn on the mantelpiece. His parents barely know Jamie, nor are they able to recognize Rose’s twin, Jasmine, as an individual. Capturing the confusion of an optimistic but sensitive child navigating a tough situation without guidance, Jamie’s narration is by turns comic and painful. His only friend is Sunya, whose headscarf billows behind her like a superhero cape and who helps Jamie fight the class bully. Yet Jamie cannot tell Sunya how his parents have abandoned the family: his mum to an affair; his dad to alcohol. The fact that Sunya is Muslim and therefore, according to Jamie’s dad, responsible for Rose’s death, is a brilliant counterpoint and an issue that Jamie must work through. Each character is believably flawed, and readers anticipate the heartbreaking scene when Jamie’s plans for a family reunion fail. However, the final triumphant chapters of this striking debut demonstrate that even as Jamie’s sorrows increase, so too, does his capacity for understanding, courage and love. Mum is gone, but Dad may recover, and Jasmine and Sunya are in Jamie’s corner.