Tragedy, fantasy, history for young readers

Books for Children and Young Adults

October 03, 2004|By The New York Times


by Walter Dean Myers. Amistad / HarperTempest. 224 pages. $15.99. (Ages 12 and up)

In Shooter, Walter Dean Myers bypasses the pop psychology to get to the root of a Columbine-style rampage. His medium is fictional, his method factual: He has created a dossier of documents that provide a convincing back story, a paper trail to a tragedy. A psychologist's interview introduces us, after the fact, to Cameron Porter, an intelligent, affluent African-American 17-year-old who gives every outward appearance of being well-adjusted. A classic accommodator, Cameron has managed, in the jungle that is high school, to be neither predator nor overt prey. Other than discomfort with his hyper-striving parents, who make him feel like a footnote to their accomplishments, there's little to explain Cameron's allegiance to Leonard Gray, except maybe simple admiration: "At least he was honest," Cameron tells his interlocutor. In a sense, Len had the courage to act out Cameron's own alienation, by "going dark," as Cameron puts it, "Getting away from symbols and all that puffed-up way of living." Just how dark becomes evident in the transcript of Len's compulsively punning, anagrammatic journal. Myers offers no pat answers, instead piling on, in these first-person accounts, credible evidence of parental and social obtuseness, of genuine and justifiable adolescent angst.

The People of Sparks

by Jeanne DuPrau. Random House. 352 pages. $15.95. (Ages 12 and up)

Jeanne DuPrau's second novel follows The City of Ember, her postapocalyptic tale about two 12-year-old friends, Lina and Doon, who struggle to escape a dying underground city before the lights go out. This begins as the two emerge into sunlight, along with some 400 fellow Emberites, appearing at first like a ragtag "row of black teeth" at the top of the hill overlooking Sparks, a farming village of 300 survivors. The stunned citizens of Sparks, though stretched thin, offer to put up the new arrivals for six months, sharing as best they can before consigning them to certain doom in the Empty Lands, where the handful of other "post-Disaster settlements" are even smaller and worse off. The newcomers from Ember, stunned themselves by the blue-skied, borderless world filled with strange creatures like chickens, are initially grateful to be put up in an ancient hotel, scraping by while learning the ways of their brave new world. When Lina takes off with some "roamers" in search of the "beautiful, shining city" that haunts her imagination, Doon falls under the thrall of Tick, an ambitious Emberite whose pride and lust for power lead him to stir up resentment among the refugees. It seems their hosts have grown increasingly wary and less gracious, and it takes only a few acts of petty vandalism to set off a tit-for-tat among the two groups that threatens to escalate into open warfare. It's here, amid Tick's angry call to arms and the townspeople's mounting desperation, that the tale takes on a harrowing Lord of the Flies cast. A simple-seeming idea, but wrapped into this parable with its themes of compassion, courage and loyalty, it's one bound to appeal to young readers.


by Andrea Zimmerman and David Clemesha. Illustrated by Marc Rosen-thal. Harcourt. 32 pages. $16. (Ages 2 to 5)

What's more delightful than a day full of dirt? For the mustachioed Mr. Rally and Lightning, his canine companion, nothing could be sweeter. Clad in boots, overalls and a yellow hard hat, Mr. Rally fires up his backhoe and rumbles off to work. He tackles five jobs, from "a drain for the rain" to "a load on the road," with diligence and a gleeful refrain: "Dig up rock and dig up clay! / Dig up dirt and dig all day!" Andrea Zimmerman and David Clemesha -- the dirt-loving duo who described a garbage collector's day in 1999 with Trashy Town -- use their familiar style and structure to explore new terrain. Sentences jounce along from one construction site to the next. After each task, Mr. Rally is praised for his fine work, but "Is all the digging done? No!" Marc Rosenthal's illustrations in ink and watercolor are full of action and small surprises. Lightning comes up with a new bone at every site, and helping him find them is half the fun. Each location is subtly labeled with its number, 1 through 5, on a flag or signpost. When the jobs are complete, Mr. Rally checks them all off on his clipboard. Unlike the hero of Trashy Town, who soaks away the day's grime with a hot bath, Mr. Rally isn't ready to rest yet. When the day's labors are done, he's off for more digging -- in his garden. He unearths a cheerful message for both kids and grownups: Work is play when you dig what you do.

In the Shadow of the Ark

by Anne Provoost. Translated by John Nieuwenhuizen. Arthur A. Levine / Scholastic. 384 pages. $17.95. (Ages 14 and up)

The enduring image of Noah's ark, particularly in children's books, is of Noah ushering cute little animals two by two up a plank to safety. Readers of Anne Provoost's sophisticated retelling will be left with a far darker, more complex picture. The omniscient narrator (also known as God) has been replaced by the voice of a bit player, here an adolescent girl named Re Jana. She, her father and infirm mother are among those whom God intends to destroy. The novel follows their efforts to understand and thwart this fate, a gripping, epic drama -- part love story and part novel of ideas -- that vividly raises thorny questions at the heart of this Old Testament story. The sweeping narrative is true to the grandeur of the biblical setting yet intimate. Creating sympathy for those whom the Bible deems sinners is just one way Provoost subverts the original text with her powerful story. In the Shadow of the Ark is a bit of a bodice-ripper, with both loving and violent sexual experiences.

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