Over the last few months I’ve read a few new or new-ish pieces of children’s fiction that I’ve mightily enjoyed.
I’m passing them along to you today in the hopes that if you’re in need of something fresh book-wise, you can access these in one format or another — e-books, an independent bookstore, online via bookshop.org, or even via the public library in some cases.
There’s a juicy variety here:
mysterious detective stories and fantastical adventures;
stories set in pioneering South Dakota and post-apartheid South Africa;
bedraggled hedgehogs and enterprising red squirrels!
In order of accessibility from youngest to oldest:
Lulu and the Hedgehog in the Rain, by Hilary McKay, illustrated by Priscilla Lamont
first published in the UK; published in the U.S. in 2014
I keep putting the Lulu books out there because they are some of the most delightful early chapter books around and I don’t want you to miss them!
This particular episode begins on an exceedingly rainy day, the rainiest day in fact that Nan has ever known in her 64 years, a sopping day that just yearns to be explored according to Lulu. On with her wellies and out the door she goes…
…where she encounters a something! A something tumbling roly poly down the gutter. A prickly gray ball of something that is wet to the core. A hedgehog! A sneezing hedgehog at that. Well, Lulu is a sucker for an animal in need, so she scoops him up and zip-zap, her latest animal adventure is off and running.
Charming, contemporary, spirited stories with the nicest animal-lover you’ll ever meet, the Lulu books make great choices for stout young readers or read-alouds for ages 4 and up.
Detective Nosegoode and the Museum Robbery, by Marian Ortoń,
illustrated by Jerzy Flisak
first published in Poland in 1976; English translation by Eliza Marciniak
for Pushkin Press, 2017
This is the second Detective Nosegood title I’ve read. They are charming entry points to the detective genre for young elementary age children.
Ambrosius Nosegoode is famous for fingering unsavory criminals everywhere. He is accompanied by his dog, Cody, who perfectly comprehends English. In this episode, they’ve got several plates spinning at once: a gang of art thieves is plotting to steal a painting from the local art museum, a chess club has been burgled, and The Elusive Hand, a brazen pickpocket, has landed in Ashworth. Can our detectives foil them all?
Old-fashioned gumshoe fun with jolly illustration work. Read it aloud with ages 5 and up or hand it to capable young readers.
The Littlest Voyageur, by Margi Preus, illustrations by Cheryl Pilgrim
published in 2020 by Margaret Ferguson Books, Holiday House
Margi Preus is a Minnesota author and here she offers a short novel especially made-to-order for northwoods-folk from Minnesota to Maine.
Jean Pierre Petite Le Rouge is a red squirrel with big dreams and unbridled enthusiasm. Every spring from his home in the treetops of Montreal, he witnesses teams of voyageurs, small but powerful men sporting red caps and sashes, embarking in their enormous canoes, paddling into the wild waterways to the west. Where do they go? Why do they make the trip? Finally Jean Pierre seizes his chance to stow away and thus begins an epic journey of fortitude, friendship, disasters, and discoveries both shocking and marvelous.
Strewn with Pilgrim’s graceful graphite artwork, the story of French fur traders in the northland comes to life for young children through the eyes of this intrepid, pesky, stalwart little fella. Ages 7 and up. Includes a pronunciation guide for French vocabulary and names, notes about voyageurs and red squirrels, and a recipe for bannock.
Prairie Lotus, by Linda Sue Park
published in 2020 by Clarion Books
When I see Linda Sue Park’s name on a book, there’s not a chance I won’t give it a read. This book is as well-written as all her others, and I believe it will be in line for some major awards at year’s end.
Park grew up cherishing, as I did and so many of you have, the stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder. In her Author’s Note (placed at the end of the book but I recommend reading it first) she talks, however, about the “fancy mental gymnastics” she had to do as a child in order to imagine herself, a Korean-American girl, into the scenes of De Smet. The truth is that the Little House books are simultaneously endearing stories of a pioneering childhood full of sledding and maple-snow candy, Pa’s fabulous stories and nasty Nelly Olson, and painfully hurtful scenes in which Native Americans are described in ways that dehumanize and demean.
Park has written this outstanding book as a kind of response to Laura’s story, one in which she does indeed succeed in imagining a girl like herself into Laura’s old world. It is the story of a young, half-Chinese girl named Hanna who arrives in Dakota Territory with her white father in 1880, into a town modeled on Wilder’s De Smet. As her father attempts to start life over by opening a dry goods store in town, Hanna struggles with the unique trials of being the only Asian person most of the townspeople have ever seen.
Park’s prose creams along flawlessly as usual. Hanna is an immensely likable character, strong yet vulnerable, smart, respectful, hardworking, bruised by the loss of her mother and the racism she encounters, longing for a true friend. Treat yourself to this optimistic and honest, eye-opening and charming account, for ages 9 to adult.
The Inventors at No. 8, by A.M. Morgen
published in 2018 by Little, Brown and Company
Here’s a rip-roaring adventure/mystery peppered with flying mechanical birds, mysterious treasure maps, hordes of pirates, and an orangutan named Ruthie, with fast-paced hijinks leading us on a merry chase from London to Geneva to Venice.
The book begins with a bit of dark humor as our narrator, George, the third Lord of Devonshire, relates his long string of dreadful luck. People in his immediate circle are dropping like flies. His family estate is rapidly disappearing. Grim is the word of the hour. Things take an electrifying jolt, however, with the introduction of George’s weird neighbor, a girl named Ada Byron, an intrepid inventor and explorer who is determined to help George recover a lost family treasure.
A blast of fun from start to finish for ages 9 and up. Great read-aloud. A sequel, The Inventors and the Lost Island, came out in 2019.
Aggie Morton Mystery Queen: The Body Under the Piano, by Marthe Jocelyn,
illustrations by Isabelle Follath
published in 2020 by Tundra Books
I thoroughly enjoyed this first book in a new mystery series starring Aggie Morton, a 12-year-old girl with a Morbid Preoccupation modeled after Dame Agatha Christie herself, and young Hector Perot, an eminently polite Belgian immigrant with canny observational skills modeled after Hercule Poirot of course.
Aggie’s lively, curious, breath-of-fresh-air voice greets us from page one and carries us along with verve throughout the suspenseful tale set in a deliciously Edwardian world. Chase after red herrings, quicken your pace, pluck up your courage, and finally breathe a sigh of relief when the true culprit has been nabbed.
Enjoy this escapade with a plateful of decadent cream puffs, slices of lemon pound cake, and tea of course. The next volume, Peril at Owl Park, is due out in September and features a Christmas setting. Ages 10 and up. Find out more of the parallels between Aggie and Ms. Christie in the Author’s Note as well as this fascinating article in The Horn Book.
Small Mercies, by Bridget Krone, illustrations by Karen Vermeulen
published in 2020 by Catalyst Press
I’m always looking for top-notch diverse reads and this book’s highly unusual setting, tender plot, and rich multicultural cast of characters ticked all the boxes for me.
Taking place in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, the contemporary story follows an 11-year-old girl named Mercy in her quest to belong, to remain, and to find her voice.
Mercy has been raised for the past six years by two loving foster-aunts — Mary, who is strong, independent-minded, and fiercely protective of Mercy, and Flora, whose advancing Alzheimers is rendering her increasingly tricky to manage in their rickety and impoverished home. For Mercy, coping with the unique demands of her home life as well as school work is beyond challenging. She’s anxious that social services will remove her from the financially-precarious home she loves, anxious about standing out for all the wrong reasons at school, and anxious that Mary will agree to sell the house to a conniving land developer if no other options present themselves.
When Mary takes in a renter, a Mr. Singh, he introduces Mercy to Gandhi and the way he used his voice peacefully but insistently for justice. In the eleventh hour, Mercy finds her own voice and way to unite the disparate people in her world against the particular injustice about to fell the only home she’s known. A distinct story that despite immersing us in vast cultural differences, thrums with important, universal elements. It also radiates love and community and tucks in a lovely introduction to Gandhi. For readers ages 11 and up who can navigate the many unfamiliar South African expressions without a glossary. Note that a pejorative use of the word retarded is used several times.