Innocence of youth adds to literary intrigue in this summer sampling fit for young eyes

Young Readers

June 05, 2005|By Mary Harris Russell | Mary Harris Russell,Chicago Tribune

The Witch's Boy

By Michael Gruber. HarperTempest. $16.99. Ages 10-14.

The cover is a bit off-putting, showing a golden mask covering a hairy creature's face. What's inside is a compelling and quite new journey through the narrative landscape of fairy tales. A witch finds an abandoned baby in the forest and, quite against character, decides to keep it. Despite the wise advice of her cat, Falance, she persists, without any clue about how to raise a child. She names the baby Lump, hires a bear to nurse it and calls up an imprisoned genie to design the nursery. The rest is difficult to summarize, except to say that it journeys through worlds of fairy power and of ordinary human violence and cruelty, bringing in familiar characters seen from new angles. For instance, imagine that you met, as grown-ups, a Hansel and Gretel who never wanted to return to their father but stayed instead with a nurturing witch in the forest. The wisely engaged and very grown-up tone makes it a thoughtful page-turner.

Weeds in Bloom: Autobiography of an Ordinary Man

By Robert Newton Peck. Random House. $15.95. Ages 11-15.

Robert Newton Peck is one of our funniest storytellers, and even in this autobiography where, he says, "There is no plot," he's a Mark Twain voice. The "weeds" of the story are folks he says he has learned from, during his life, each getting a chapter. Peck can make us laugh and cry, as in the chapters of World War II memories (he enlisted at 17) of Gene Autry visiting the troops or of his friend, Elliot Leftowitz, "a born civilian" from the Bronx. (Leftowitz died in the war.) These memories aren't swept clean for children, as witness his 10-year-old exploits trying to buy a condom because all the "big boys" carried them in their jean pockets. Not all the lives he portrays are consistent or end happily, but they are incredibly memorable and human.

Project Mulberry

By Linda Sue Park. Clarion. $16. Ages 9-12.

Julia Song's best friend is Patrick, and together they want to take a project to the state fair, in a program that resembles 4-H. They're best friends despite one difference: Julia hates her family's pickled cabbage (kimchi) and Patrick, not a Korean, loves it. Julia wants an American project, so when her mother suggests raising silkworms, she's negative from the start; it's too Korean. Before the end (and, refreshingly, they do not win first prize), they learn a great deal about their friendship and about silkworms. Neither expected they would have to cook the cocoons to get the silk off, and there's a lively discussion of raising animals for human benefit. Readers, maybe especially in classrooms, will like the breaks between the chapters where author and character chat.

Understanding the Holy Land

By Mitch Frank. Viking. $17.99. Ages 11-14.

Mitch Frank is a Time magazine reporter with an ear for difficult questions. This book provides 12 chapters answering questions, with extensive historical background, maps, a glossary and a bibliography. Don't condescend to it because it's for young readers: Frank provides more detail than most of his adult readers know or remember at any one time. For example, a chapter on how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict began starts with 1917 and the Balfour Declaration, but the two previous chapters have covered Israeli identity "before there was a state of Israel" and Palestinian identity "before they became known as Palestinians." The book was completed before Yasser Arafat died, but otherwise the coverage is full and balanced.

Perfect

By Natasha Friend. Milkweed. $16.95. Ages 11-14.

Isabelle Lee, 13, knows her life isn't perfect: Her father has been dead more than a year, but her mother doesn't want to talk about it, and her little sister rats her out for binge-and-purge eating. So Isabelle ends up in a group-therapy session with, wonder of wonders, Ashley, the only "perfect" girl at John Jay Elementary. Readers won't be surprised to discover that Ashley's life isn't perfect and that Isabelle can learn to look at herself as someone other than a mess with horrible thighs. The group- and individual-therapy scenes are a little more harmonious than is believable, but Isabelle is a winningly tart observer of life at home, and the plot shows the dangers in perfection's siren call.

Seen Art?

By Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith. Museum of Modern Art / Viking. $16.99. Ages 10-14.

This book was commissioned for the reopening of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, but a plane ticket is not required. The visit and the humor are within the book, where a simple question gets a complicated answer. "It all started when I told my friend Art I would meet him on the corner of Fifth and Fifty-third." When his friend isn't there, he asks "a lady walking up the avenue, 'Have you seen Art?'" She instantly refers him to the redesigned museum, and inside, person after person walks him over to a different piece of art. Art, we learn, can be many things. It's the playful quality that keeps the book going, because it refuses any one answer.

Mary Harris Russell, who teaches English at Indiana University Northwest, reviews children's books for The Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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