Today’s fiction list jumps all over the place: fantasy, sci fi, historical, contemporary and multicultural titles; graphic novels, imported novels, books in translation.
Reading a variety of genres is refreshing and full of surprises. Some books usher me into the difficult realities of others’ lives, while others rocket me right out of this world. If you or your kids are stuck in a literary rut, maybe something here will spark an interest.
The Steam Whistle Theatre Company, by Vivian French
published in the UK in 2019 by Walker Books
This delightful, lighthearted, Victorian-era adventure follows the Pringles, a family theatre-troupe down on their luck, determined to bolster their fortunes by removing to the north of England.
Its rousing pace will keep readers fully engaged and could serve as a jolly enticement to delving into a bit of Shakespeare. It’s certainly chock full of as many dastardly villains and spoiled brats to boo and hiss, and plucky, colorful characters to cheer, as any Shakespearean production.
Great fun for ages 9 and up. It has not been brought to the U.S. yet, but you can order it online.
Queen of the Sea, written and illustrated by Dylan Meconis
published in 2019 by Walker Books US
Ah! I loved this gorgeous, intriguing graphic novel and tore through it in record time!
Loosely based on the early years of Elizabeth I of England, this account is peppered with fascinating historical details about something entirely unusual in children’s literature — 16th century convent life!
Young Margaret has lived since her infancy on a remote island. It’s a most unusual home, this convent of the Elysian sisters, yet it’s a home she loves. Two new arrivals, one an imperious woman who makes life difficult for everyone on the island, bring news and dramatic changes beyond anything Margaret could dream.
Absolutely fabulous for a wide age range, 10 to adult.
What Elephants Know, by Eric Dinerstein
published in 2016 by Disney Hyperion
Join Nandu, age 11, and his beloved elephant, Devi Kali, in this richly-woven story studded with authentic details of the Nepalese Borderlands region with its tigers and rhinos, exotic birdlife, dense jungle, ice-cold rivers plunging from the Himalayas, and every color of dappled-green light.
The King of Nepal has decided to shut down the elephant stable that is the only home orphaned Nandu knows. Nandu and his compatriots strive for some means to save the stable in this intriguing, stirring, gorgeously-written account.
It’s rife with unusual elements, which is exactly what I look for in middle-grade fiction. Magnificent elephants and their intelligent relationships with their drivers and caretakers, the dangers and glories of this jungle region, violent bandits, a Catholic scholar, Hindu holy man, and Muslim friend, all anchor this story pulsing with adventure, courage, heart, and respect for the wonders of the natural world. I thoroughly enjoyed it. There’s a sequel out this year as well. Ages 10 and up.
Lampie and the Children of the Sea, by Annet Schaap
first published in Amsterdam in 2017; English edition by Laura Watkinson 2019, published by Pushkin Press
My ears always perk up when I hear about a book in translation; I love reading children’s literature coming from other cultures. Here’s a book that won high awards in the Netherlands brought to us by our great friends at Pushkin Press.
It’s the story of a lighthouse keeper’s daughter, Lampie, whose life takes a disastrous turn one wickedly stormy night. As punishment for a shipwreck on her watch, she is sent to live at a strange mansion which houses, it is rumored, a monster. What Lampie discovers, however, is quite curious!
This novel courses with the strange darkness of a Grimm’s fairy tale as well as bearing a lovely resemblance in places to The Secret Garden. I also felt a similarity of cadence and matter-of-fact voice to that renowned Dutch author Meindert de Jong. It’s a magical story that mesmerizes, draws us into a world of pirates and mermaids, lonely and hurting children, and the sea.
Fair warning: the story includes one quite violent scene, a terribly neglectful father, and an old-fashioned freak show. The “freaks,” who are denigrated by the adult villains, are loved by both child and adult heroes. Nevertheless, it is painful to read the abusive insults.
It’s a great, fantastical yarn with ample fodder for discussion in a book club, for ages 10 and up.
Beverly, Right Here, by Kate DiCamillo
published in 2019 by Candlewick Press
This is the third novel in DiCamillo’s series about the Three Rancheros: Raymie Clarke, Louisiana Elefante, and Beverly Tapinski. The girls are 10 years old when we meet them in the first installment, Raymie Nightingale, fierce friends who begin as competitors and wind up as family.
Now they are 14. Louisiana has left town with her grandmother (Louisiana’s Way Home), Beverly’s beloved dog, Buddy, has died, and she’s decided to also leave. For good. Put some miles between herself and her neglectful, alcoholic mother and make her own life.
As in the previous novels, DiCamillo’s prose is as gentle as the ocean breeze even as she unfolds layers and layers of hurt and grief. And as in the previous novels, she illuminates the power for healing that the most ordinary, homely persons can have in another’s life, shines a light on true community, earthy kindness, muscular caring. I found this to be the most melancholy of the books, probably because Beverly has grown up to the point that she’s more aware of the brokenness surrounding her. Yet it is not a depressing book. The realistic hope is measured and a bit frayed around the edges, but it is hope, indeed.
I think reading these books in order is essential. Best for ages 12 and up. I loved this series and recommend it for adults looking for short, profound, beautifully-written stories.
Mighty Jack and Zita the Spacegirl, written and illustrated by Ben Hatke
published in 2019 by First Second
If your kids haven’t read Ben Hatke’s sci fi/fantasy graphic novels, they should go directly to the shelf, do not pass go, do not collect $200, and get started.
Hatke has written a trio of books about Zita the Spacegirl and a pair of books about Mighty Jack. Epic, action-crammed adventures, super-sized heroics, goblins and screeds and intergalactic robots of every shape and size, make all these sizzling tales extremely popular.
In his latest offering, Hatke merges the characters from both series, setting the kids and their alien pals on a blazing mission to save the earth from an army of vicious giants. It has been awhile since I’ve read the Zita books in particular so I was grateful for Hatke’s brief summaries of both series at the outset. If you haven’t read the other books, though, start with them first. All of them are an absolute blast for ages 9 and up.
Mr. Penguin and the Fortress of Secrets, written and illustrated by Alex T. Smith
first published in Great Britain in 2018; first U.S. edition 2019 by Peachtree Publishing
This is the second of the Mr. Penguin titles to make its way across the pond to us. These lighthearted, heavily and jauntily- illustrated, high-octane stories are great fun and of particular note for older, reluctant readers.
Mr. Penguin advertises as “Adventurer and Penguin,” available for hire to solve any mysteries one might have. He thus finds himself embroiled in Indiana Jones type affairs, that is if Indiana was a somewhat reluctant adventurer with a weakness for fish fingers whose compatriots, including his sidekick Colin, a kung fu wielding spider in a bowler hat, exhibit the lion’s share of moxie and brains required for success.
This episode finds him colliding with impossible mountain fortresses, surviving airplane crashes on jagged, frozen mountainsides, foiling a diabolical mad scientist, and — like Indy — confronting a roomful of snakes. “Why did it have to be snakes?” Humorous, dangerous, action for ages 8 and up.
Bernard Pepperlin, written by Cara Hoffman, illustrated by Olga Demidova
published in 2019 by Harper Collins Children’s Books
The drowsy dormouse from the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party escapes from one Wonderland and lands in another — New York City — in this trippy little novel that taps into the spirit of resistance and stouthearted friendship.
Bernard the dormouse lands in the middle of a dark plot by a band of weasels known as The Pork Pie Gang to hypnotize New York into a stand still and take over the city. He teams up with Mittens, a streetwise Brooklyn cat, Ivy, an intrepid and strategic lizard, Leon, a hospitable community-activist rat, and a plethora of other small animals to stymie their dastardly plan.
The human and animal worlds of NYC run as parallel universes here. Mice in business suits, Broadway-bound cockroaches, and taxi-hailing chinchillas scamper along the sidewalks and ride the subway alongside their mostly-oblivious human counterparts. For kids who are unfamiliar with New York, much of the assumed knowledge of its sites will be lost on them, though it shouldn’t derail the story too much.
To me the cover image, title, and trim size of this book all exude a charming aura; it appears to be a very gentle read-aloud for 5 year olds. Indeed, both of the blurbs on the back jacket mention, “charming.” This, however, is a clever middle-grade read that would earn a PG rating on film for Scary Moments, and I’m just sorry that some older readers will shy away from it due to the “cuteness” of the package. Ages 8 and up.