Simon Thorn is dreading the beginning of school. Each passing year, his enemies grow in number while his friends and fellow outcasts shrink from a few, to one, to finally zero. His loving uncle supports him as much as he can while he’s home, but outside of their little New York City apartment he feels alone and exposed.
You see, Simon, the titular character of Simon Thorn and the Wolf’s Den by Aimée Carter, can talk to animals, and they can talk to him. Birds, mostly, although he’s on good terms with many of the neighborhood rats, raccoons, squirrels and Felix, a mouse that lives in his bedroom. His habit of talking to nonhuman species has separated him from his peers until he has none left. On the first day back at school, attempting to face the new challenges awaiting him, he meets a strangely high number of new faces, starting with a gold eagle outside his window that insists catastrophe is around the corner, to a new classmate, Winter Rivera, who is more than she seems. Before Simon can even begin to deal with the difficulty of school itself and just being a kid under pressure, his mother suddenly returns, and secrets that have been kept from him his whole life start to unravel — a secret society of animal shapeshifters that have existed since the dawn of humanity, an academy of the animals hidden beneath the Central Park Zoo and the untold depths of his own family history and future.
Simon Thorn and the Wolf’s Den is a delight for animal and fantasy lovers alike, something for the young reader who can’t get enough of classic fantasy. Be sure to supplement your reading with research into the animal kingdoms and the multitudes of species explored in the book!
Edward Carey’s Iremonger trilogy is a rare children’s fantasy that, like the His Dark Materials trilogy or The Chronicles of Narnia series, can transport adults as well. The books take place in an alternate 1875, where Clod Iremonger lives with his family in a borough of London called Foulsham amongst a sea of discarded items called the Heaps. The strange and prosperous Iremonger family have a mysterious relationship with the trash surrounding them, and each family member carries a “birth object” that must never leave their side. Meanwhile, an illness is spreading, the poor are disappearing and a new servant girl named Lucy Pennant seems to be “upsetting” objects in the house. Clod, who has the unnatural ability to hear certain objects speak, begins to learn that the members of his family are more sinister than they appear.
Without spoiling too much, the narrative switches between Clod and Lucy as they discover that the Iremongers have managed to secure their status by literally objectifying the poor. But how? And can it be reversed? Learning the rules of this world is half the fun, and each revelation suggests exciting possibilities.
Each book in the trilogy focuses on a different location, beginning with Heap House, the Iremongers’ secluded mansion, then moving outward into the surrounding borough of Foulsham and concluding in the greater city of Lungdon. As the locations expand, the excitement builds.
Fans of Edward Gorey and Lemony Snicket will enjoy the trilogy’s playfully gothic tone, which leavens even its darkest moments with quirky turns of phrase, and the author’s detailed and ink-heavy illustrations will set you firmly in a world so strange and specific you’ll never want to leave.
Young sleuths looking for a case to solve can have their pick with the latest selection of new titles. Each of these books holds secret lessons on science and math that will help burgeoning detectives spot clues and decode puzzles.
Captain Coconut and the Case of the Missing Bananas by Anushka Ravishankar introduces a new “First Chapter” series from India, led by the crazy and entertaining Captain Coconut, detective extraordinaire. When he’s not inventing booby traps and reading pulpy detective stories, the Captain has readers using simple arithmetic to solve crimes. Chapters are interjected with Bollywood-esque songs praising Captain Coconut’s numerous talents while the accompanying illustrations belie many jokes at the Captain’s expense.
The Queen’s Shadow, by acclaimed picture book author Cybèle Young, uses the framework of a mystery in an animal kingdom to study the special kinds of vision different animals have — from the trinocular vision of the mantis shrimp to the panoramic eyesight of goats. Young interjects her narrative with sidebars detailing these feats and uses her illustrations to demonstrate the ways animals’ vision differs from our own. Readers will be impressed by the creatures she features, some of whom are strange and exotic, but many of which are fairly common and all the more interesting when seen in this new light.
Fans of Gravity Falls and Roald Dahl will want to check out Warren the 13th and the All Seeing Eye, an action-packed story about an orphan who cares for the hotel his ancestors built. Minded by his devious aunt and dim-witted uncle, Warren’s days of riding dumbwaiters and exploring hedge mazes are interrupted when he takes up the task of thwarting his scheming relatives’ plans for treasure hunting. To prevent the mysterious “All Seeing Eye” from falling into the wrong hands, Warren must uncover the secrets of the Warren Hotel with some creative thinking and the help of his friends. With a cast as kooky as the Addams family, Warren the 13th is a fast paced, art-driven story first conceived by its illustrator, Will Staehle, and further developed by writer Tania Del Rio, who has promised a sequel this fall.
If I could award a book for best cover design, Brian Selznick's The Marvels would be the winner. One of the reasons why I selected The Marvels is because the book cover had me at “Hello!” It is a large, navy blue and gold book with gold trimmed pages. Do not let the page count intimidate you, even though it's nearly 700 pages (Yikes!). It's part pictures and part words (Yay!).
The first half of The Marvels is in illustration. The drawings tell a story set in 1766 about a 12-year-old boy named Billy Marvel, who becomes the lone survivor of a horrid shipwreck caused by a storm. After an English ship saves him, he settles in London and works at the Royal Theatre. This theatre becomes the place where several generations of Billy’s family perform and become well-known actors.
The second half of The Marvels is in prose. This story takes place in London and is set in 1990. It focuses on another young boy named Joseph Jervis, who runs away from boarding school to track down his best bud, Blink. Unable to find him, Joseph seeks help from his long time, no-see estranged uncle, Albert Nightingale, to assist him with locating his friend. While searching for his uncle’s address, Joseph meets a new acquaintance, Frankie, who helps him find his uncle’s home. At first, Albert is reluctant to have Joseph stay at his home, but he gives in once he sees that his nephew is unwell. After experiencing the presence of ghosts, hearing weird noises and seeing enchanting portraits throughout the home, Joseph quickly notices that his uncle and his house are very mysterious. He and Frankie gather that it may have something to do with the Marvels and the Royal Theatre. They both go on a mission to discover Albert’s connection to the theatre and the Marvels.
My favorite part about The Marvels is the wonderful job the author has done telling the story through the amazing illustrations. Although this is a children’s book, I want to point out that it has LGBT themes and it brings up the topic of AIDS. The story has some heart-breaking moments and an unexpected twist. Overall, this was a good read.
Fans of Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck will relish his latest release The Marvels.
In Ronald L. Smith’s novel Hoodoo, twelve-year-old Hoodoo Hatcher’s family has a history of practicing hoodoo or folk magic. Despite his name Hoodoo can’t cast a single spell. His grandmother, Mama Frances, tells him that his heart-shaped birthmark under his eye is a sign he’s marked for magic and his ability to conjure will come in time, but Hoodoo’s time is rapidly running out. A mysterious and malevolent man called the Stranger has appeared in town and he’s stalking Hoodoo. Hoodoo has to discover the truth about his family’s past and find a way to conjure before the Stranger destroys Hoodoo and everyone he loves.
Part coming-of-age story, part Southern Gothic tale, Hoodoo is creepy and mysterious, perfect for any middle schooler who enjoys the supernatural. Even though the story is set in 1930s Alabama during Jim Crow, Hoodoo’s world is a self-contained society with its own secrets and powers. Hoodoo is a likeable and relatable narrator, struggling not just with supernatural forces but also with bullies and his first crush.
Smith currently lives in Baltimore and he recently won the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Author Award. His writing is smooth and easy, with a rhythm to it that lends well to reading the book out loud. Hoodoo is a good read for any fan of scary stories, but fans of Lemony Snicket should definitely check this book out. Read the Between the Covers author interview of Ronald L. Smith here.
George Saunders is an award-winning author and MacArthur Genius Grant recipient who’s made a name for himself writing dark, occasionally violent stories that satirize capitalism. In other words: not exactly bedtime material. But with his newest book, he decided he wanted to write exactly that: a story to tell his daughters at bedtime. To do this, he had to come up with a whole new bag of tricks and the resulting book The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip is a refreshingly touching defense of tenderness.
The story takes place in the three shack seaside town of Frip, where a young girl named Capable lives with her father and makes a meager living producing goat’s milk with the rest of her community. Unfortunately, Frip is also home to some orange spiky baseball-shaped creatures called gappers who attach themselves to goats, stopping them from producing milk. Getting gappers off of goats is a constant chore for the people of Frip, until the gappers form a new strategy: to gang up on Capable’s yard all at once. Capable asks her neighbors for help, but, sadly, they’ve decided that their sudden gapper-free life is a reward for their good character and that Capable’s bad luck must be punishment for bad character. They offer her ridiculously impractical advice like, “Be more efficient than you’ve ever been before. In fact, be more efficient than is physically possible. I know that’s what I’d do.” In order to survive Capable will have to find a new way of life and a way to teach her neighbors the value of community.
As always, Saunders' prose is a comfort. Even in storybook mode he manages to be scathing and critical without sacrificing warmth, something not many writers have balanced since Kurt Vonnegut. It’s a reassuring voice, and, much like a good bedtime story, you’ll want to read this book again and again. If you have time, check out his most recent appearance on The Late Show to hear him sing a song inspired by Frip (Saunders is one of those rare guitar strumming MacArthur Geniuses).
Marianne Dubuc is an awarding-winning author and illustrator, but never before has she created such an absolutely mesmerizing book for children (or unselfconscious adults). In Mr. Postmouse’s Rounds, we follow Mr. Postmouse as he delivers the mail, getting a sneak peek into a detailed cross-section of each animal abode on his route. Mr. Mouse must travel from treetops to the bottom of the sea in his quest to deliver the mail, but he is never too busy for a smile and a wave at each happy package recipient. Roller skates for turtle or a new shovel for mole, each package in the wagon must be delivered. The illustrations are bustling with details, and readers are sure to find something new each time they open this book. Every panel creates complex, funny characters like the yeti who loves to knit, the overeager ants and a very friendly dragon. While the text is amusing and easy to read, the book’s clever illustrations will win over readers of all ages.
Mother Bruce by Ryan T. Higgins is a laugh-out-loud picture book that also gently pokes fun at our interest in cooking fancy, gourmet foods. Bruce is a grumpy little bear who only likes eggs. He scours the Internet for new and interesting ways to prepare them. No ingredient is too difficult for him to procure as he combs the forest, ever the local shopper. However, things get complicated when he finds a recipe online which calls for duck eggs. The eggs hatch as Bruce attempts to prepare them, and he finds himself the victim of mistaken identity when the ducklings think Bruce is their mama. This book has a great sense of humor and will delight both kids and the grownups they beg to read it again. The author infuses this same hilarity into the illustrations as well. I especially enjoyed Bruce’s unibrow and his many disgusted and disgruntled expressions.
Shawn Stout takes a break from her popular Penelope Crumb series to introduce young readers to Frankie Baum in her engaging new middle grade novel A Tiny Piece of Sky. It is 1939 in Hagerstown, Maryland, and Frankie Baum, the youngest of three sisters, is wondering if her German-born father really is a spy. Newbery Honor and National Book Award-winner, Kathi Appelt raves about this captivating coming-of-age story, “At turns hilarious, at turns heartbreaking, Shawn Stout’s story shows us the damage that a whisper campaign can do to a family and a community, and at the same time shows us, each of us, a way to find our hearts.”
Between the Covers: What was the inspiration behind A Tiny Piece of Sky?
Shawn Stout: A Tiny Piece of Sky was inspired by the lives of my grandparents, Albert and Mildred Beck, and their three daughters, in the 1930s. My grandfather, the son of German parents, was a restaurant owner and businessman in Hagerstown, Maryland, and amidst the post-WWI anti-German hysteria, he was falsely accused of being a Nazi spy. Following those accusations, there was an organized boycott of his restaurant, which sent him and my grandmother into a financial crisis and contributed to my grandfather’s early death.
I grew up listening to my mother’s stories about her family’s restaurant, about the rumors of espionage and about the boycott. Many decades later, after my grandmother died, we were cleaning out her apartment and found letters dated 1939 from local civic organizations, which voiced their support for my grandfather and his restaurant, and denounced the accusations that he was a German spy. I held onto those letters and knew that one day I would write about their story.
BTC: Frankie is Number Three, the youngest of three sisters and yet she is spunky and fun. Is her character autobiographical in any way? The sisterly relationships are so real. Did you draw on real life experience from your own family?
SS: Like Frankie, I’m a Number Three, so I do know what it feels like to be the last to do everything. (It doesn’t feel so great, let me tell you.) I certainly heard a lot of “No, you’re not old enough,” when I was a kid, so I can relate to Frankie’s frustrations. But that’s where our similarities end, I think. Frankie is much more adventurous than I was at her age, and she has a lot more gumption. Gumption. I love that word.
The relationship between the Baum sisters was really fun to write. I don’t think I consciously drew on any experiences from my own life, but it’s hard to say where things come from when I’m writing. Having an older brother and sister, though, has definitely helped shape who I am and made me sensitive to the dynamics between siblings.
BTC: You did an amazing job of capturing the feeling of life in a small city during the war. What kind of research did you do to create this authentic setting? What is your writing process like?
SS: Before I wrote a single word, I read a lot of books about pre-WWII era in the United States, and about anti-German sentiment and the super-patriotism of the time. I listened to radio broadcasts from the 1930s like “The Shadow” and dug up newsreels and local newspaper articles. I also interviewed family members and those few still living who worked at my grandparents’ restaurant in the 1930s. To get a feel for the place, I was able to find photographs dated 1938 of the restaurant and staff, as well as advertising postcards, matchbooks and an original menu.
My writing process is different for each book. For this one, I started out with the research and tried to immerse myself in the period. Then, once I felt as though I had enough of a handle on the time and place, I started writing. I knew I wanted to tell the story mostly through the youngest Baum’s eyes — Frankie’s — so I started with her character until I could find her voice. When I found it, the story started to take off.
BTC: One of the most impressive feats in this book is your ability to address injustice through Frankie’s eyes without preaching. So many children’s books seem to feel a need to teach a lesson and become didactic. How do you let the reader come to his/her own conclusion and avoid lecturing?
SS: That’s a great question. I try to stay inside my characters’ head as much as I can and let them react to what happens in the story as it unfolds. Honestly, as I’m writing, I’m rarely thinking about the reader — my focus is on the story and the characters — so the idea of teaching lessons or morals doesn’t ever occur to me. I learn so much about the world through my characters as I’m writing, so there’s no place for me, as the author, to preach to anyone.
BTC: What were some of your favorite books as a child and what do you tell children who ask for advice on how to be a writer?
SS: My favorite book as a child was The Secret Garden, but I read everything I could get my hands on. I was also in love with Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series. I still am, actually.
BTC: Will you share with our readers some of your favorite things about living in Maryland?
SS: I grew up in Maryland and continue to love living here for many reasons — watching the seasons change, being close to both the mountains and the ocean and the Chesapeake Bay, and enjoying its eclectic cities. Maryland has so much to offer. I’ve lived here all my life and still haven’t explored everything.
BTC: What can your fans look forward to next?
SS: I’m working on a new middle grade novel, but it’s too early in the process to talk about it in very much detail. I will say that it has to do with a lonely girl, an unkindness of ravens and a bit of old magic.
Jo Franklin’s book I’m an Alien and I Want to Go Home begins with Daniel Kendal’s sister telling him, “You’re an alien, abandoned on Earth by your alien parents.” It’s a typical nasty remark that siblings say to each other but to Daniel, the statement makes sense. He is tall and lanky with brown hair and eyes. His parents and siblings are all short and stocky blonds with blue eyes. There are no baby pictures of Daniel, and the final bit of evidence comes from a paper clipping his mother saved regarding some sort of unidentified object crashing to earth the day Daniel was born. All of these factors make Daniel feel certain that he is an alien and needs to go home.
With the help of his two best friends, Eddie and Gordon, Daniel figures out that he must be from a distant planet known as Kepler22b. The problem is how can he contact his ‘real parents’ and get back to his home planet. Through a series of hilarious misadventures including a bizarre encounter with a group of self-proclaimed alien abductees, the trio set out to find a way to send Daniel to Kepler22b.
For any young people who have ever felt like they didn’t fit in, Daniel’s quest to get back to where he thinks he really belongs is both relatable and humorous. Franklin’s short chapter punctuated with clever dialogue and Marty Kelley’s quirky illustrations make this book a great choice in particular for reluctant readers.
Dealing with the loss of a parent is hard enough, but in Leza Lowitz’s Up from the Sea, teenager Kai must learn how to continue on after the loss of almost his entire world. March 11, 2011, should have been a normal day for Kai and his classmates; instead, it quickly turns into horrific tragedy as the students struggle to escape as their hometown is destroyed by the Tohoku earthquake and the resultant tsunami. In the course of a few hours, Kai goes from a normal student who loves soccer to one of the few survivors left alive to salvage what they can from the destruction.
The story then follows Kai through the next year as, angry and grief-stricken, he must come to terms with what has happened to him. This includes travelling to New York City to meet with young adults who lost their parents 10 years previous on September 11. Kai is encouraged to go as a way to heal and connect with others like him, but agrees only when he realizes he has a chance to find his estranged American father if he goes. But once in New York, Kai gains a greater understanding of how tragedy shapes us, and is inspired to reclaim his life.
Author Lowitz was living in Tokyo when the 2011 Tohoku earthquake struck Japan and took part in the volunteer relief efforts. While fictional, Up from the Sea is inspired by her experiences and by the survivor’s stories. Lowitz creates memorable images with very little description, allowing readers to share in both Kai’s grief and his burgeoning hope. Because it is a novel-in-verse, it’s a fairly fast and clear read, good for all kinds of readers. But that doesn’t lessen the emotional impact of Kai’s journey from the dangers of the earthquake and tsunami to his struggles as he learns just how strong he can be.
Even though Kai’s loss is caused by an unexpected natural disaster, Kai’s personal journey is universal, one we all have or will have to face. Up from the Sea is ultimately a hopeful and encouraging story of humanity’s strength of will to persevere. Readers who enjoy this book may also enjoy Cynthia Kadohata’s Kira-Kira.