A look at some recent books, and some good gift ideas, for younger readers.
Reviewed by Mary McCusker Goodie
In her coming-of-age novel, Liar & Spy, Newbery award-winning author Rebecca Stead introduces her readers to Georges, a seventh grader whose family must move unexpectedly. Set in a Brooklyn, N.Y. apartment complex, Stead’s novel explores the problems many contemporary tweens face, often amid the additional challenges of adapting to unforeseen circumstances. Stead’s protagonist copes with difficulty by reminding himself to approach life in the same manner that his namesake, French Impressionist Georges Seurat, approached painting — each struggle is just a dot in a much larger image. Georges does his best to ignore the bullies at school, adjust to his new surroundings and accept the constant absence of his parents. When considerate, reserved Georges meets his new neighbor, Safer, he is intrigued by the coffee-drinking, outwardly confidant home-schooler and founder of a spy club. Safer convinces Georges that another resident of the complex, Mr. X, is a dangerous criminal. If Georges is to join Safer on his mission to expose the evil Mr. X, he must hone his sleuth skills — be diligent, astute and most of all, focus on detail. As Safer draws Georges deeper into his quest, Georges begins to realize that by acknowledging personal battles, life’s bigger picture can be manipulated. With several plot twists and likeable characters, Liar & Spy challenges its readers to find smart, creative solutions to life’s difficulties. Stead’s straightforward writing and honest approach to bullying, family heartache and friendship will appeal to preteen boys and girls alike.
Ages 12 and up
Reviewed by Cynthia Unwin
“Share the thrum.” These words resonate like perfect harmony in Guitar Notes by Washington-area author Mary Amato. Tripp Brody — moody, introverted, rebellious — feels his world sink into cacophony when his mother takes away his guitar, his lifeline to sanity. Desperate, he borrows a school guitar and spends his lunchtime every other day reviving his thrum in one of the school’s practice rooms. Lyla Marks, cellist extraordinaire, uses the room on alternate days. She’s nearly consumed with anxiety in the pressure cooker of her competitive world. Their two lives, like polyphonic melodies, eventually intertwine in a most beautiful composition, one in which the giftedness of each complements the other. Amato celebrates the transformative power of music, words and friendship in this extraordinary novel. As a singer, songwriter, and poet herself, Amato is uniquely qualified to share Tripp and Lyla’s story with conviction, heart and authenticity. Readers interested in exploring the musicality of the story more deeply will also appreciate Amato’s recordings of Lyla and Tripp’s songs on the book’s website, www.thrumsociety.com.
Ages 12 and up
Reviewed by Erin Teagan
In this fast-paced dystopian thriller, Aiden Nomura realizes life is not always as it seems. His father owns the largest mobile company in North America and his mother is busy running an international bank while Aiden attends boarding school in Bern, Switzerland. The world is changing though. Therapeutic Forgetting Clinics are multiplying and coalition bombings are widespread. When a bomb goes off just blocks from Aiden’s school, it’s time for him to go home. He’s eager to see his cousin, Winter, who sent him a book containing a mysterious comic strip. But when he gets home, he finds Winter incoherent and confused with no memory of the package. Things are strange at home. People are getting micro-chipped without their knowledge, there are rumblings of an underground resistance, and citizens can’t be sure their memories are their own anymore. When Aiden uncovers the ugly truth behind the microchips and finds his own family in danger, it’s up to Aiden, Winter and her friend Velvet to take action. Told in the alternating perspectives of Aiden, Winter, and Velvet, this book will appeal to readers of dystopian and science fiction, as well as anyone looking for a fast, suspenseful read. Author Angie Smibert does an excellent job creating this future world that will feel familiar and possibly not-so-future to readers. This book is a sequel to Smibert’s first novel, Memento Nora, and her fans will not be disappointed.
Ages 12 and up
Reviewed by Corinne Wetzel
“Nobody forced me into this. At seventeen, I’m plenty old enough to take charge of my life,” says Adele Blanchard as she parachutes into Nazi-occupied France to fight with the resistance. Intrepid, French-speaking Adele has left her name, Betty Sweeney, and American girl-next-door persona behind; yet Betty manages to peek through, particularly with her schoolgirl crushes on rugged resistance fighter Pierre and stranded flyboy Robbie. Adele and her street-wise partner, Denise, are (mostly) cool as cucumbers, carrying out their missions against the Jerries. Non-stop action and high-stakes encounters with Nazi guards, double agents, and exploding munitions create suspense that makes this World War II novel a page-turner. While the male characters are predictable and clichéd — naive Robbie who has never kissed a girl, and rugged Pierre in his woolen sweater — they fit neatly into this cleanly written tale of the last good war. The author is sometimes heavy-handed in the presentation of historical background. When the girls arrive at the home of their resistance contact, they receive a lengthy lecture on the Nazi invasion and the Maginot Line. Teens with strong knowledge of history may find this dumping of information jarring, while those more interested in the action and romance might find it tedious. The research is accurate, however, and there are no detectable inaccuracies. From ersatz coffee to the painted seams of fake nylon stockings, the author authentically recreates everyday scenes of life during World War II. Teen girls who like high school romances will enjoy the love interests in Violins of Autumn and may discover that historical fiction is also irresistibly alluring.
Ages 14 and up
Reviewed by Cynthia Unwin
The United States is a melting pot nation. Never has this been more true than in the 21st century, an era being shaped in America by an increasingly complex cornucopia of cultures and ethnicities. In The Good Braider, Terry Farish brings to life one such culture through the eyes of Viola, a teen refugee who makes her way with her mother from war-torn southern Sudan to the streets of Portland, Maine. Viola’s story, told in spare first-person verse, painfully personalizes the atrocities of the Sudanese civil war and the challenges of all refugees as they bid their homelands goodbye. Viola’s experience, though fictional, reveals the truly oxymoronic nature of the refugee experience: What makes a life better? And who is in control of defining what better means? In her debut novel, Farish honestly illuminates a culture foreign to most Americans and sensitively addresses the complexities of American life for those outside the mainstream. Teens will relate strongly to Viola, whose experiences, while unique and sometimes horrific, tap into the universal truths of adolescent coming of age.
Ages 14 and up
Reviewed by Sarah McGuire
Megan is the sole survivor of a plane crash. She left the wreck and walked miles through the forest before she was found. She’s a miracle. She’s a miracle who can barely make it through the day. Megan is determined to be the miracle everyone thinks she is, to return to life as normal. Yet no matter how normal she wants to be — no matter how normal her family needs her to be — Megan finds it harder and harder to make it through the day, especially when she begins to remember the crash. Only two people see just how deeply the crash wounded Megan: Joe, the boy next door, who has experienced his own share of tragedy, and a woman from church who served in Vietnam. Can Megan find an anchor, find herself, before she’s completely overwhelmed? Elizabeth Scott weaves a thoughtful, engrossing story about what happens after the miracle. Miracle provides a nuanced depiction of post-traumatic stress disorder. Megan is never a victim, yet the challenges she faces are not glossed over.
Ages 14 and up
Reviewed by Lisa Smilan
Something Like Normal begins with 19-year-old Travis Stephenson, a U.S. Marine, returning to his Florida home town on leave from active duty in Afghanistan. Travis doesn’t fit in anymore at home. His old friends are still partying like they did in high school, while he’s a young man who has lived through the hell of combat. Travis is battling undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder, and must also contend with his dysfunctional family, including a father who tries to take ownership of Travis’ accomplishments, a brother who has stolen Travis’ girlfriend and a mother who won’t stand up for herself. The one person Travis finds a connection with is a young woman whose reputation was years earlier ruined by a rumor Travis could have stopped. Travis is plagued by nightmares, especially ones featuring the death of his best friend in the Marines, Charlie. Charlie died when the two were on patrol; Travis feels partly responsible for his friend’s death and is grappling with survivor’s guilt. Attending Charlie’s funeral is difficult but provides some closure, as does a new friendship with Charlie’s mother. Fully intending to return to Afghanistan, Travis knows he needs to change something in his life. He cannot meet his responsibilities as a soldier while carrying these overwhelming emotional burdens. With help from his new girlfriend, Harper, Travis realizes the path he must take. This contemporary young adult novel is unique in its subject matter and the writing is honest and authentic. It’s a great choice for reluctant male readers, and the romance and relationship storylines most certainly will appeal to teen girls.
Mary McCusker Goodie is a writer, editor and teacher. She lives in Montgomery County, Md., with her husband and three sons.
Sarah McGuire works as a high-school teacher in central Virginia and is writing a young-adult novel. She and a group of fellow writers and illustrators blog about the kid-lit jungle in Turbo Monkey Tales: http://turbomonkeytales.blogspot.com/
Lisa Smilan writes novels for adults and young adults and is an associate editor for The Independent. She is an attorney and lives in Montgomery County, Md.
Erin Teagan is currently taking a break from her science career to be at home with her two children. She reads many children’s books and is a reviewer for Children’s Literature Database.
Cynthia Unwin, Ph.D., is a reading specialist in the Fairfax County Public School system. In her rare moments of spare time, she writes fiction for children and young
Corinne Wetzel teaches English to 120 awesome seventh graders in Chantilly, Va. She is an avid reader of young-adult fiction.