Al Capone Does My Homework
This final installment in the life of Moose Flanagan, a boy who lives on Alcatraz Island during the 1930s, brings Choldenko’s trilogy to a satisfying conclusion. The story opens with good news: Moose’s father, Cam, has been promoted to associate warden of the island’s infamous prison. But the new job makes Cam a target, and the family feels the backlash immediately when a suspicious fire breaks out at their apartment while Moose and his developmentally disabled sister, Natalie, are home alone. A malicious neighbor suggests Natalie started the blaze, inciting problems with the special boarding school Natalie attends. Mean-while, money is changing hands in odd ways around the island, and inmate No. 85 (Capone) sends Moose another cryptic note, written on Moose’s homework (“Luckily, he wrote in pencil”), which helps Moose and his affable gang sort the good guys from the bad. Choldenko continues to infuse the Alcatraz community with warmth and originality (the kids play “rock, newspapers, shiv”). Despite being “the roughest hard-time prison in America,” by the end of this winning series, it’s also a place Moose comes to proudly call home. 2013, Dial, Ages 10–up, $17.99.
REVIEWER: Publishers Weekly
It is June, 1942 and Bee is chopping onions for the hot dogs that Pauline sells from her hot dog cart, part of the circus attractions. Bee does not remember her parents, who died when she was young, but relies on the memories Pauline has of them. Pauline is her protector when adults and children taunt her for the large birthmark on her face. Ellis, the circus manager, is not a very kind man, does not like children or dogs, and yells a lot when things do not go his way. When he sends Pauline and Arthur out to a neighboring town to set up a more permanent exhibition, he refuses to let Bee go with her. Now, it is Bee’s responsibility to sell the hot dogs and honeybuns to the circus goers and to try to keep her new canine companion, Peabody, out of Ellis’s sight. Finally, one night after Ellis has discovered the dog, she prepares to make her exit. She has already lost her parents, her friend Pauline, her mentor Bobby, and even her favorite pig. She will not lose Peabody. Taking only what she feels belongs to her, Bee sets out to find a new home for herself and her animal friends. After a day of foot travel, the troupe stops to rest and eat near an apple orchard. Bee is awakened by her mysterious orange hat lady. Pauline was never able to look quickly enough to see her, but the lady always appeared when Bee needed comfort or encouragement. Now she is here, offering Bee shelter for her and her friends. The mysterious Orange Hat Lady will prove to be the best friend Bee has ever had. This is a delightful story from author Fusco, with a touch of magic and mystery that will appeal to the middle school reader. It is the story of a young girl who perseveres in spite of obstacles that are placed in her way. Themes of loyalty, stereotypes, and multigenerational relationships are interspersed among the historical elements of carnivals and the atmosphere of war. 2013, Knopf, 336p; Reviewed from galleys, $19.99Reviewer: Joyce Rice Grades 5 to 8.
REVIEWER: Joyce Rice (Children’s Literature).
Child of the Mountains
Marilyn Sue Shank
Growing up in 1950s Appalachia, Lydia has experienced considerable loss in her eleven years. Her alcoholic father was killed in a construction accident, her brother died of cystic fibrosis, her beloved grandmother passed two years ago, and her mother is currently in prison on unfair charges. Lydia recounts her life in a notebook wherein she attempts to sort it all out, and the chapters are arranged topically, each focusing on an experience or a story from the past that is relevant to her present struggle. Part historical fiction, part mystery, this novel is particularly adept at intrigue, with the reasons for Lydia’s mother’s imprisonment enticingly hinted at until finally the full story is revealed, and a second mystery about Lydia’s birth surfacing later. There’s a warm authenticity to Lydia’s narration, written in mountain dialect. The flashback stories are filled with love and affection, making the subsequent losses all the more painful as Lydia remembers good times with her grandmother, brother, and mother before everything began to change. While the ending is somewhat contrived, with a compassionate lawyer stepping in to help Lydia’s family, readers will nevertheless cheer when justice prevails and Lydia and her mother are reunited. This is an honest tale, full of strong characterizations and evocative stories. A note about the author’s own West Virginia background is included. Review Code: R — Recommended. 2012, Delacorte, Grades 5-8., $19.99.
REVIEWER: Hope Morrison (The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books).
Seventeen-year-old Briony Larkin believes herself a witch. Briony’s endearing, supportive stepmother has convinced her she is the cause of her family tragedies, specifically to her socially-challenged identical sister, Rose. To atone for her actions, Briony refuses to love. She will not cry and she will hate herself every day for harming her family with her anger and jealousy. She has banished herself from her beloved, magical Swampsea marsh where she communicated with the Old Ones through her gift of second sight. Her crushing guilt over her witchery motivates her to burn all her writings, for reasons that, to Briony, are cloudy and shrouded with lies. When Eldric comes to live with the Larkins, he awakens Briony’s true spirit and allows her to become herself. As terrible happenings begin again, Briony begins to realize the truth of her past. Her misconceptions of true evil find Briony about to be hanged as a witch, until the secrets within her family are revealed. Billingsley creates an original tale of terrifying mythical marsh creatures and a charmingly romantic love story, even when the voice of Briony is, at times, as murky as her confusion. Rose and Eldric are characters the reader yearns to learn more about, but the secondary characters could use more dimension. The book is slow to engross readers, but those fantasy fans who soldier on will find a deceivingly delicious dark tale of eccentric characters and gripping suspense. Some may guess as to the conclusion of the twist-and-turn mystery; however, Billingsley gives a most satisfying end to a shaky beginning. VOYA CODES: 3Q 3P J S (Readable without serious defects; Will appeal with pushing; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12). 2011, Dial Books, Ages 12 to 18, $17.99.
Laura Panter (VOYA).
Excalibur: The Legend of King Arthur, A Graphic Novel
Illustrated, colored, and lettered by Sam Hart
The story of King Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, Merlin, and Morgana le Faye is re-imagined through stunning comic book art in this graphic novel by Lee and Hart, which manages to elevate itself above a simple re-tread of the well-known legend. While the novel covers the expected plot points (the sword in the stone, Guinevere and Lancelot’s forbidden romance, the rise of Mordred, and the final battle for Camelot), the creators also add some new wrinkles to the tale, primarily by showing how many of the characters are aware of their destinies and often see themselves as players in a pre-ordained story (Arthur in particular has been having visions of his death since he was a child). Yet while such foreknowledge could potentially eliminate the story’s dramatic tension, the very fact that the characters choose to accept and even embrace their fates often make them seem more heroic, sympathetic, and even humorous (there’s an memorable scene where Merlin makes an off-hand joke about Arthur’s doomed marriage that can be viewed as both sad and hilarious). The creators also add another alteration to the legend by revealing Arthur’s forgotten first love (she’s not Guinevere), causing readers to view the familiar love triangle between Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot in an entirely different light. Hart’s dramatic artwork lends an almost cinematic quality to the story’s epic battles and intense verbal exchanges, while Lee’s script is by turns exciting, witty, and heartfelt. Overall a unique and fun entry for any Arthurian fan’s library. 2010, Candlewick Press, Ages 10 up, $21.99.
REVIEWER: Michael Jung, PhD (Children’s Literature).
After having escaped the foster-care system, Eve is lying low and working at a coffee shop. When brother and sister Bain and Bridgette dangle a $100,000 proposition in front of her, she’s not really in a position to say no, even if what they are proposing is pretty sleazy. It turns out that she looks exactly like a cousin of theirs who disappeared three years ago, coincidentally on the night Eve’s best friend Liza apparently committed suicide. The siblings want Eve to impersonate their cousin long enough to collect her sizable inheritance, and then the three will split the money and Eve can go back to her own life. Bridgette’s the master planner, but Eve has plans of her own, especially as she learns how manipulative this family really is. Things get really complicated when she starts getting strange phone calls and messages from Liza’s ghost and begins to piece together a story that is much more sordid than she imagined. Fans of Jaffe’s previous mysteries will not be disappointed as this complicated tale unfolds; Eve is an appealing character with more heart than she gives herself credit for, while Bain, Bridgette, and the rest of the extended family suffer from a coldness that settles any doubt as to why the cousin left in the first place. Much more serious than Jaffe’s Bad Kitty (BCCB 4/06), this offering’s emotional tone resembles that of Rosebush (BCCB 12/10), as soul-searching, family drama, and social critique inflect the suspenseful mystery with contemplative undertones. Whodunit and, in fact, what exactly was done and to whom are cleverly plotted with multiple surprises even for seasoned crime-fiction fans. Review Code: R — Recommended. 2012, Razorbill, Grades 7-10, $9.99.
REVIEWER: Karen Coats (The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books).
Grumbles From the Forest
Jane Yolen and Rebecca Kai Dotlich
Illustrated by Matt Mahurin
Yolen and Dotlich refashion 15 classic fairy tales into incisive poems told from dual perspectives. Cinderella laments wearing glass shoes when other choices were more sensible (“I could have put on/ moccasins./ Those would have been real stunners”). Cinderella’s stepsisters also speak up: “She moved to a castle, maids and all./ Oh piddle! That slipper./ That rat./ That Ball.” In an especially stirring poem, Beauty speaks of her initial resistance to the Beast: “I can’t get past/ his fangs, his roar.” In their twilight years, it’s a different story: “I have no regrets./ None./ Though sometimes I do wonder/ what sounds children/ might have made/ running across the marble halls.” Mahurin’s inky illustrations make theatrical use of dimension, light, and shadow as the characters bound from their expected roles. 2013, Wordsong/Boyds Mills, Ages 7–up, $16.95.
REVIEWER: Publishers Weekly
In a story with strong middle-grade appeal, Jinx has grown up in the Urwald, an enormous, sentient forest where humans exist on sufferance, safe only in their own clearings and the paths between them. Trolls and werewolves prowl the Urwald, as do dangerous witches and wizards. After Jinx’s brutal stepfather decides to abandon him in the forest, the boy is saved by a crusty, morally ambiguous wizard named Simon, who takes him in as a servant, eventually teaching him some magic. Years later, a 12-year-old Jinx and two new friends set off to find another wizard, the monstrous Bonemaster, in hopes he can help them overcome their respective magical troubles. Blackwood…fills her tale with drama and delightfully funny dialogue (“You could have told us you had a curse on you that made you have to tell the truth,” Jinx complains at one point). Jinx is an engaging and memorable hero, and adult characters like Simon, the Bonemaster, and the witch Dame Glammer (who rides a butter churn) are entertainingly eccentric. 2013, Harper, Ages 8-12, $16.99
REVIEWER: Publishers Weekly.
Those who work with teens know that adolescents sometimes have difficulty making sound decisions, particularly when influenced by their peers. Lie presents a credible tale about a group of teens whose lives are impacted when their charming, but flawed, peer leader convinces them to keep his violent crime a secret. Jimmy Seeger seems to have a sixth sense about peers who are vulnerable and needy, as is evidenced by his rescuing Skylar Thompson after her mother’s death and befriending Sean Mayer, a capable but insecure “follower.” When Jimmy viciously assaults two young brothers from El Salvador, resulting in the death of the older brother, his friends make a tight circle around him and pledge that, although “everybody knows” what actually happened, “nobody is talking” about it. This terrible hate crime takes a toll on everyone, it seems, except Jimmy. Despite the fact that Jimmy is in jail temporarily, his grandmother has hired a high-powered attorney to plead his case. Thus, the chances of him beating the rap are excellent–unless one of his peers has the courage and motivation to come forward and tell the truth. After subsequent tragedies occur, Skylar finally realizes that she must do the right thing and tell what she knows. This title will be highly appealing to tweens and teens wrestling with difficult peer issues and struggling to make tough, but morally correct, decisions. VOYA CODES: 3Q 3P J S (Readable without serious defects; Will appeal with pushing; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12). 2011, St. Martin’s Griffin, Ages 12 to 18, $9.99.
REVIEWER: Donna Miller (VOYA).
A Million Suns
A MILLION SUNS provides Book 2 in the ACROSS THE UNIVERSE trilogy and tells of an adolescent’s search for the truth about her home, the spaceship Godspeed. Elder has assumed leadership of the ship but his move uncovers a shocking truth behind life on Godspeed. It’s up to Elder and Amy to solve a mystery that will ultimately determine the fate of over 2,000 passengers aboard Godspeed. A powerful sequel, this deserves a place in any collection where Book 1 saw patron interest. 2012, Razorbill, Ages 13 up, $17.99.
REVIEWER: Midwest Book Review (Children’s Bookwatch).
The Mostly True Story of Jack
Kelly Regan Barnhill
Jack’s parents decide to get a divorce, and they drop him off in Hazelwood, Iowa, to spend the summer with his aunt Mabel and uncle Clive. For his entire life, Jack has always felt invisible and alone, even within his own family. In Hazelwood, however, everyone seems to notice him. It is as if they are expecting his arrival. Jack quickly becomes friends with Wendy, Frankie, and Anders. He also makes some enemies, though, for reasons he does not yet understand. Clayton Avery, the town bully, starts picking on him, and Clayton’s father, the most powerful man in town, wants Jack dead. Jack is unsettled by this newfound attention and the feeling that something is very wrong with the town of Hazelwood. As Jack slowly unravels the town’s secrets, he discovers the reason he belongs in Hazelwood and finds himself in the middle of a magical battle of good versus evil. Barnhill tells a compelling story with genuine characters and a deliciously creepy atmosphere. The suspense builds from the very first page, and short chapters propel the reader along as the mystery unfolds. While the danger mounts, Jack and his friends defend one another and make difficult, but brave, sacrifices. This delightful story will captivate readers with its blend of magic, mystery, and adventure. VOYA CODES: 5Q 4P M J (Hard to imagine it being any better written; Broad general YA appeal; Middle School, defined as grades 6 to 8; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9). 2011, Little Brown, Ages 11 to 15, $16.99.
REVIEWER: Taryn Super (VOYA),
No Passengers Beyond This Point
Finn Tompkins is a worrier who knows something is up. His mother, a widow, has not been herself lately and abruptly reveals to Finn, his older snarky sister, India, and young sister, Mouse (a child genius), that their house is being repossessed the next day. The three kids will be boarding a plane to go live with their uncle in Colorado while Mom, a teacher, stays behind to finish up the school year before joining them. After barely making it through security (Mouse has her volcano science kit in her suitcase), the kids settle in on the flight. India is full of teen rage and angst at this sudden turn of events; Mouse has tons of questions; and Finn tries to calm everyone down https://s3-us-west-2.amazonaws.com/jackets.clcd/9780803735347.jpgwhen the plane suddenly lands and all must disembark. They are picked up by a young driver in a feather-covered taxi and whisked away to the surreal, futuristic city Falling Bird. The children are dropped off at separate houses, each filled with their heart’s desire, including the parent each longs for. Finn and Mouse quickly tire of this supposedly idyllic place, but India is lured into wanting to stay. Finn and Mouse try to figure their way out of this mess as India tries to fit into Falling Bird’s rules and social structure, eventually realizing being together as a family is most important. The three race against time as they work at unraveling the puzzling clues that (hopefully) will lead them to freedom. Choldenko has done a masterful job creating a world that is slightly off kilter. Since all three children contribute to the narrative, the constant shifts in perspective keep the reader off balance. India, as the selfish and crabby older sister is a bit of a stereotype and the dynamic between the three siblings is familiar–self-centered teen, responsible peacemaker, and annoyingly whimsical young genius. What makes this work is how Choldenko brings to life this mysterious dystopia in which the Tompkins children must function as they face their life, family, and home through the lens of survival. Occasionally poignant humor keeps this from becoming too heavy and the swift action propels the reader along. The ending will be a surprise to most and leaves the reader lots to consider–and maybe a desire to reread sections to see how it all fit together. (Reviewed from ARC; artwork not available) 2011, Dial Books for Young Readers/Penguin, Ages 10 to 16, $16.99.
REVIEWER: Peg Glisson (Children’s Literature).
Living in Paris with her Jewish parents, Odette’s remarkable survival of Nazi-occupied France comes to life through poetry. After her father joins the French Army in 1939, he is quickly taken prisoner by the German soldiers. Odette and her mother live in constant fear of being taken prisoners themselves. When Paris becomes too dangerous, Odette’s mother sends her to the country where she can hide in plain sight as a Christian child living in a Christian village with a Christian family. Eight year old Odette quickly adapts to this new way of life by learning to pray, learning the sign of the cross, and attending church. She begins to feel safe once again, but constantly worries that she will forget who she really is. Based on a true story, this powerful first-person narration is done completely in verse. Each poem offers snapshots of the events, relationships, struggles, and dreams that provide the foundation of Odette’s life. This is an engaging, well-written book providing a unique glimpse into history while exploring the difficulties Jewish children faced when being forced to abandon their religion and identity in order to assimilate into a Christian way of life. While the book spans five or six years, the fast pace makes it seem like a much shorter period of time. The timeline in the back of the book provides readers with exact dates of Odette’s life and how they coincided with the rise of Nazi Germany. Pictures of Odette and the author’s note add rich layers to the story. This is an excellent choice for young readers looking for historical fiction, fiction in verse, Holocaust fiction, or an engaging story of survival and courage. VOYA CODES: 4Q 3P M J (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses; Will appeal with pushing; Middle School, defined as grades 6 to 8; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9). 2013, Bloomsbury, 224p., $16.99. Ages 11 to 15.
REVIEWER: Sarah Cofer (VOYA).
Summer is different for twelve-year-old Raine this year: she and her mother are staying at an old Midwestern estate, a former orphanage now turned artists’ retreat, where her mother is serving as cook. Raine’s puzzled at the move, but she finds herself enjoying Sparrow Road, where she’s bonding with some of the artists and exploring her own writing in pieces about the orphans who once lived there. Eventually, though, her mother reveals the fact that they’ve come to Sparrow Road so that Raine can see her long-gone father, of whom she knows nothing. Raine’s summer idyll is depicted with picturesque detail and quiet emotionality; setting the events back a few decades allows for both a plausibly low-tech experience and a certain romantic distance that rubs smooth some of the sharper edges of ugly reality. What comes to the fore as a result is Raine’s processing of her loss as her father’s tentative reappearance makes her more keenly aware of the gap in her life, a theme that’s underscored by the lingering shadows of the Sparrow Road orphans. The overall mood, however, is hopeful and resilient (even the middle-aged orphans, returning for an event, are all right in spite of past sadness); the strength of even imperfect human connections is celebrated through the relationships among a multitude of vivid and varied characters. There’s further appeal in the fact that Raine, the only child at Sparrow Road, has attention lavished upon her by a crowd of adults who all think she’s terrific, a situation that many readers will envy. Most of all, they’ll be drawn into the world O’Connor creates, and they’ll appreciate being part of Raine’s emotional journey. Review Code: R — Recommended. (c) 2011, Putnam, Grades 4-6, $16.99.
REVIEWER: Deborah Stevenson (The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books).
Splendors and Glooms
Laura Amy Schlitz
A meaty, intricately plotted gothic novel about two orphans, Lizzie Rose and Parsefall, who are apprenticed to a gifted puppeteer named Grisini. Grisini is also an evil magician, and after the trio gives a private performance at the birthday party of a lonely rich girl named Clara Wintermute, Clara disappears. Not long after, Lizzie Rose and Parsefall discover Grisini has a new puppet and recognize it as the missing girl. Meanwhile, in northern England, a dying witch is in agony due to a powerful stone in her possession her only relief will come if a child steals the stone. The witch has chosen the apprentices of her long-time adversary Grisini as the most likely thieves. Laura Amy Schlitz’s ominous tale unfolds from multiple points of view the three children, the magician, and the witch so that only readers see all the pieces of the puzzle, but finding out just how all those pieces fit together will keep them turning pages. Schlitz builds tension as her characters especially the three children who’ve been dealt such different fates and who each own a different kind of sadness face the challenge of temptations and the dangers of deceit. A story that starts out deliciously sinister draws to a perfect and perfectly happy conclusion. 2012, Candlewick Press, Ages 8-11., $17.99.
REVIEWER: CCBC (Cooperative Children’s Book Center Choices, 2013).
Starry River of the Sky
Stowing away on a merchant’s cart, young Rendi is on the run from his tyrannical father and finds a convenient hideaway in the Village of the Clear Sky, an isolated village with few residents and even fewer visitors. Hired on as a chore boy at the local inn, Rendi spends his days angrily cursing his past and his nights struggling to sleep through the mysterious weeping only he hears weeping he assumes is a result of the moon’s absence from the sky. When an enigmatic and beautiful storyteller arrives at the inn, Rendi is captivated by her tales, but when his past finally catches up with him, he’s reluctant to take the lessons he has learned from the stories and apply them to his own reality. Readers of Lin’s Newbery Honor-winning Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (BCCB 9/09) will recognize both Lin’s folkloric style and a few familiar faces, but as a companion piece rather than a sequel, this requires no knowledge of the previous book. While initially far less likable than Moon’s vivacious heroine, Rendi eventually transforms from a spoiled, angry brat into a thoughtful, compassionate friend whose heroic actions drive the plot of the story. Lin reprises her technique of framing the main story with a selection of Chinese folktales (signaled by a change in font), and her spare, lyrical prose lends the entire endeavor a tone of quiet enchantment. The book has the same carefully elegant design as its predecessor, with a decorative line-drawn headpiece in a single strong color introducing each chapter, and occasional full-page color illustrations, saturated with ruby reds and deep, midnight blues, portraying key scenes and accenting the book’s folkloric style. Review Code: R — Recommended. 2012, Little, Grades 4-6, $17.99. .
REVIEWER: Kate Quealy-Gainer (The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books).
Will Sparrow’s Road
Will Sparrow, liar and thief, flees the wrath of his cruel master and goes in search of a better life. Wet, hungry and bootless his mantra of caring for no one but himself and a full belly is sorely tested by hardships of the open road. His naivete is revealed when he meets up with Nell Liftpurse who steals from him his blanket and a much-coveted button. His cheated again by a charlatan dentist and when he makes the acquaintance of Master Tidball and his collection of oddities and prodigies he thinks he has found a way to add a few coins to his empty purse. Will throws his lot in with this rag-tag group that includes a thieving dwarf named Fitz Lancelot, Benjamin, a blind juggler, the cat-faced girl Grace Wyse, a three-legged chicken and a mermaid baby. Even among this assortment of eccentrics, and with all the rigors traveling to various market fairs entails, it is difficult for Will to know just who to trust. Thinking himself a clever trickster, time and time again he is outwitted by duplicitous conmen. It is Benjamin who tells him that with all the sorrow and loss that life hands out you either let yourself be hit or stand together. Gradually Will begins to see the travelers as his family and when he runs into trouble and runs for the safety of the cart and not the road from town he allows himself to believe he has found a home. Set in Elizabethan England, Cushman’s novel features a likeable young man coming of age in a difficult era. Filled with colorful rants and curses, language of the time and edifying Latin, readers will become immersed in Will’s story and his journey both on the physical road and the metaphorical road to altruism and family. An author’s note clarifies the history of the market fairs and their importance to the economic livelihood of the people as well as providing entertainment and much needed socializing. 2012, Clarion Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Ages 10 to 12, $16.99.
REVIEWER: Beverley Fahey (Children’s Literature).