On a quest for gold, with lots of bacon and determination


Young Readers

December 04, 2005|By MARY HARRIS RUSSELL

Klondike Gold

Alice Provensen

Simon & Schuster. Ages 7-10.

There was more than one gold rush in 19th century North America, and this book is written as the record of one Bill Howell, who takes off from Boston in 1896 to head for the Yukon River. The Canadian government required anyone who was crossing into the Northwest Territories to bring a year's supply of food, medicine, clothing and tools. Bring and carry. Feel the heft of it: 800 pounds of flour and 300 pounds of bacon, just for starters. Alice Provensen manages an excellent blending of the story of two miners with a sense of all the details of the world around them, combining text, illustrations and sidebars full of well-chosen, intriguing historical data.

Hidden Child

Isaac Millman

Frances Foster/Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Ages 9-14.

"My name is Isaac Sztrymfman, and I was a hidden child." Isaac was 7 when the Germans invaded France, and soon he, his father and his mother are arrested. His mother bribes a jailer to take Isaac to safety at a nearby hospital and, she hopes, eventually to be hidden with a Parisian friend. That arrangement doesn't work, and it is only through the kindness of a woman who sees the boy crying on the street that Isaac is taken into hiding. We feel his desolation intensely, yet we also feel the bravery of most of the ordinary people - not all are well-intended - who took in children. Madame Devolder's life is meager, but she makes room for this child. Prose and illustrations are separated; readers move through this emotionally dense material in two media.

The Old African

Julius Lester, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney.

Dial. Ages 10-14.

Julius Lester has been fascinated for years by legends about a slave who led his companions into the ocean to walk back to Africa. He tells that story here, giving the Old African, the oldest slave on a particular plantation, powers as a seer and healer. We see him as a young man in his Ybo homeland and then see how, in his old age, he leads a group of slaves to walk the ocean bottom. Details are a mixture of historical fact and magical realism, especially movingly embodied in a sequence under the ocean with the sharks that once followed the slave ships. Jerry Pinkney's illustrations are stunning.

The King in the Window

Adam Gopnik

Miramax/Hyperion. Ages 11-15.

Twelve-year-old Oliver, an American, lives in Paris, where his father is a freelance writer. Though he thinks his parents are making a babyish fuss over celebrating Epiphany, he doesn't object when his mother sets him up with the prize-containing piece of cake and a paper crown. And that, it appears, is the beginning of it all, when "the boy in the blue doublet appeared in the window for the first time." Why would Oliver be singled out by a world of "window wraiths" as their new king? While it may seem unbelievable that the wraiths are right, or that we'll enjoy a fantasy journey where Moliere and Racine are the boy's companions, somehow it works, especially because of Adam Gopnik's witty commentary on French schools, American teenagers, high-tech culture, and metaphor and irony.

The Gruesome Guide to World Monsters

Judy Sierra, illustrated by Henrik Drescher.

Candlewick. Ages 11-14.

If you know Henrik Drescher's work, you'll immediately grasp the tone of Judy Sierra's guide. Squiggly little nightmarish critters populate this bestiary, which includes a location, "Gruesomeness Rating" (using skulls instead of stars) and survival tip for each. The drawings are fanciful, all the monsters come from stories in cultures around the world, and Sierra's brief note makes clear what tasks they fulfill in those cultures.


Sharon G. Flake

Jump at the Sun. Ages 12-15.

"They kill people where I live. They shoot 'em dead for no real reason. You don't duck, you die. That's what happened to my brother Jason." Nothing will bring back Mann's little brother, but where the book will go in following the effects of all this neighborhood's grief is not immediately obvious. Mann's parents grieve, though in different ways, and Mann's friends, especially Kee-lee, have losses of their own. The shock is when Mann's father, drawing on what he sees as a continuation of an ancient African tradition, abandons Mann and Kee-lee in the woods after a camping trip, convinced that they'll be more mature after figuring out how to get home. Sharon G. Flake is especially good in showing how Mann and Kee-lee react to their adversities differently, and there are characters within Mann's extended family who surprise us.

Mary Harris Russell, who teaches English at Indiana University Northwest, reviews children's books each week for the Chicago Tribune.

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