THE SECRET LIFE OF SAM

Magically mesmerizing and moving.

A grieving boy is given a way to see his dead father again.

After Pa dies in a car accident, seventh grader Sam is taken away from Bayou St. George, Louisiana, by Aunt Jo—now a virtual stranger whom he hasn’t seen in four years—to middle-of-nowhere Holler, Oklahoma. In Holler, he starts seeing an ugly, scarred gray cat, who leads him through the hollow of an eerie tree that transports him to a dreamy version of Bayou St. George. There, the cat turns into the Boy, a guide of sorts, and Sam’s reunited with his father and the Colonel, an alligator that’s a Bayou St. George legend. Too soon, Sam’s sucked back through the portal—but it will open again, the Boy tells him, same time each day, though not indefinitely. Sam’s pulled between the visits with his father (sometimes witnessing Pa’s memories and trying to bring his father back with him), the budding connections he builds with Aunt Jo as he gains a new understanding for who she is as a person (a veteran amputee and Narcotics Anonymous leader), and the first kid to befriend him, kindred spirit Edie. The magic’s rooted in evocative descriptions and strong emotions, perfectly suited to interplaying themes of truth and stories, just as Sam’s grief-and-letting-go storyline echoes both Jo’s and Edie’s grounded-in-reality subplots. Lacking racial descriptors, characters default to White.

Magically mesmerizing and moving. (Fantasy. 9-13)

Pub Date: Sept. 29, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-294118-3

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 13, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2020

THE SCHOOL FOR GOOD AND EVIL

From the School for Good and Evil series , Vol. 1

Rich and strange (and kitted out with an eye-catching cover), but stronger in the set pieces than the internal logic.

Chainani works an elaborate sea change akin to Gregory Maguire’s Wicked (1995), though he leaves the waters muddied.

Every four years, two children, one regarded as particularly nice and the other particularly nasty, are snatched from the village of Gavaldon by the shadowy School Master to attend the divided titular school. Those who survive to graduate become major or minor characters in fairy tales. When it happens to sweet, Disney princess–like Sophie and  her friend Agatha, plain of features, sour of disposition and low of self-esteem, they are both horrified to discover that they’ve been dropped not where they expect but at Evil and at Good respectively. Gradually—too gradually, as the author strings out hundreds of pages of Hogwarts-style pranks, classroom mishaps and competitions both academic and romantic—it becomes clear that the placement wasn’t a mistake at all. Growing into their true natures amid revelations and marked physical changes, the two spark escalating rivalry between the wings of the school. This leads up to a vicious climactic fight that sees Good and Evil repeatedly switching sides. At this point, readers are likely to feel suddenly left behind, as, thanks to summary deus ex machina resolutions, everything turns out swell(ish).

Rich and strange (and kitted out with an eye-catching cover), but stronger in the set pieces than the internal logic. (Fantasy. 11-13)

Pub Date: May 14, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-06-210489-2

Page Count: 496

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Feb. 12, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2013

CLUES TO THE UNIVERSE

Charming, poignant, and thoughtfully woven.

An aspiring scientist and a budding artist become friends and help each other with dream projects.

Unfolding in mid-1980s Sacramento, California, this story stars 12-year-olds Rosalind and Benjamin as first-person narrators in alternating chapters. Ro’s father, a fellow space buff, was killed by a drunk driver; the rocket they were working on together lies unfinished in her closet. As for Benji, not only has his best friend, Amir, moved away, but the comic book holding the clue for locating his dad is also missing. Along with their profound personal losses, the protagonists share a fixation with the universe’s intriguing potential: Ro decides to complete the rocket and hopes to launch mementos of her father into outer space while Benji’s conviction that aliens and UFOs are real compels his imagination and creativity as an artist. An accident in science class triggers a chain of events forcing Benji and Ro, who is new to the school, to interact and unintentionally learn each other’s secrets. They resolve to find Benji’s dad—a famous comic-book artist—and partner to finish Ro’s rocket for the science fair. Together, they overcome technical, scheduling, and geographical challenges. Readers will be drawn in by amusing and fantastical elements in the comic book theme, high emotional stakes that arouse sympathy, and well-drawn character development as the protagonists navigate life lessons around grief, patience, self-advocacy, and standing up for others. Ro is biracial (Chinese/White); Benji is White.

Charming, poignant, and thoughtfully woven. (Fiction. 9-12)

Pub Date: Jan. 12, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-06-300888-5

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Quill Tree Books/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Oct. 26, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2020

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