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Adrift

Paul Griffin. Scholastic Press, $17.99 (240p) ISBN 978-0-545-70939-2

In a terrifying survival story in which past traumas are as visceral and intense as present circumstances, five teenagers try to stay alive after becoming lost off the Atlantic coast. Raised in a blue-collar neighborhood in Queens, friends Matt and John are working in Montauk, N.Y., for the summer when they meet 17-year-old Driana Gonzaga, her Brazilian cousin Estefania, and Estefania’s boyfriend, João. After Estefania attempts some daring night surfing, the other teenagers attempt to rescue her in a small, ill-equipped boat; engine problems soon strand them. Griffin (Burning Blue) gives his characters just enough know-how to keep them from being completely helpless, but the situation is clearly beyond their control. Police emails and other communications provide brief respites from the rapidly degrading situation on the boat. Profound moments such as when Matt realizes that the “cruel” sun “was just being what it was. A mindless, merciless star that would shine on whatever got in its way” will haunt readers as much as the lethal injuries, worsening weather, class friction, and psychological instability the teenagers face. Ages 12–up. Agent: Jodi Reamer, Writers House. (July)

Reviewed on 05/01/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate

Jacqueline Kelly. Holt, $16.99 (320p) ISBN 978-0-8050-9744-3

Six years after debuting in Kelly’s Newbery Honor–winning The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, the budding Texas scientist returns, as curious and charming as ever, and now preoccupied with fauna instead of flora. Travis, one of Callie’s six brothers, continually needs her help because of his bad choices in pets (armadillo, blue jay, raccoon, etc.). Callie’s training under the tutelage of her gruff, beloved grandfather continues with increasingly complex dissections. Meanwhile, the devastating 1900 Galveston hurricane sends refugees to Fentress that include an injured veterinarian, who finds an eager assistant in 13-year-old Callie, despite his reservations about a young lady working in an often gruesome field. Undeterred, Callie finds her passion at precisely the same moment she realizes how unfairly the deck is stacked against girls of her era. But if anybody can figure a way around studying the domestic arts, it’s whip-smart Callie, literary cousin to Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce, and just as sharp an observer. Happily, the episodic narrative leaves the door wide open for further adventures—if we’re lucky. Ages 9–12. Agent: Marcy Posner, Folio Literary Management. (July)

Reviewed on 05/01/2015 | Details & Permalink

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My Brother Is a Superhero

David Solomons. Viking, $16.99 (304p) ISBN 978-0-451-47477-3

Eleven-year-old Luke is a huge comic-book fan, so when an ill-timed bathroom break results in his 14-year-old brother, Zack, receiving superpowers from a visiting alien (instead of Luke himself), he is understandably upset. But Zack—whose brand of nerdiness only extends to math, not comics—needs help navigating his new identity as Star Guy. Comic-book devotees like Luke will appreciate references to familiar characters (Zack initially christens himself Starman until Luke reminds him, “There’s already a Starman. You’ll probably get sued”), but all readers will enjoy the deadpan narration that reveals the unexpected difficulties of being a modern-day superhero—like getting to a crime scene when you’re too young to drive. When Luke’s classmate Lara decides to unmask Star Guy, Luke tries to stop her, but the real danger is the villainous Nemesis, a threat to not one but two universes. In his first children’s book, screenwriter Solomons demonstrates that he’s equally at home with high-octane comic-book action and more ordinary topics like the pain of being overshadowed by an older sibling, superpowered or otherwise. Ages 8–12. (July)

Reviewed on 05/01/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Doublecross (And Other Skills I Learned as a Superspy)

Jackson Pearce. Bloomsbury, $16.99 (304p) ISBN 978-1-61963-414-5

Pearce (Pip Bartlett’s Guide to Magical Creatures) spins a thoroughly enjoyable story about a secret spy agency, the Sub Rosa Society, where agents are trained from birth in subjects like Body Language Analysis and Emergency Undercover Ops. Hale Jordan, the chubby 12-year-old son of “The Team”—two of SRS’s most decorated agents—wants desperately to follow in his parents’ footsteps, but he can’t pass the physical exam to become a junior agent. After his parents go missing, Hale’s spy skills are tested in the real world, where villains don’t always look like villains. Pearce’s spy gadgetry and scenes of agent training are clever and fun, but it’s the always-underestimated Hale, with his systematic—and unconventional—approach to every challenge (“Mission: Get sent on Friday’s mission. Step 1: Wait for chili day”), who makes this such an entertaining and memorable story. Fans of the spy-thriller genre may anticipate some of the twists, but Hale’s pursuit of the truth is no less exciting for it. Pearce sets the stage for what could easily become a favorite series. Ages 8–12. Agent: Josh Adams, Adams Literary. (July)

Reviewed on 05/01/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Book of Dares for Lost Friends

Jane Kelley. Feiwel and Friends, $16.99 (304p) ISBN 978-1-250-05087-8

Set on the west side of Manhattan, with frequent ventures into Central Park, this entertaining and compassionate coming-of-age story explores middle-school cruelty, the heartache of abandonment, and the supple bonds of friendship. At the start of sixth grade, Lanora, the only child of bitterly divorced parents, ignores her best friend Val and seeks admittance to a clique of snooty blondes, “the A Team,” who admit her only to drop her. Val, a confident student and soccer player, accepts Lanora’s distancing until her six-year-old brother insists the “evil Werd has cast a spell upon Lanora” and she needs rescuing. Kelley (The Desperate Adventures of Zeno and Alya) smoothly weaves together plot threads that involve ordinary family interactions; the subtle interventions of a cat named Mau; an odd, brilliant teenager who lives in an antiquities shop; ancient Egyptian ceremonies; and a mentally ill homeless man. Val’s observation that the “world was so crowded with sights and sounds and smells; there didn’t seem to be space for demons and spells” captures the story’s blend of reality, whimsy, and magic. Ages 8–12. Agent: Linda Pratt, Wernick & Pratt. (July)

Reviewed on 05/01/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Backyard Witch: Sadie’s Story

Christine Heppermann and Ron Koertge, illus. by Deborah Marcero. Greenwillow, $16.99 (176p) ISBN 978-0-06-233838-9

In this charming series opener from Heppermann (Poisoned Apples) and Koertge (Coaltown Jesus), nine-year-old Sadie is resigned to spending four long days lonely and bored when her two best friends go on vacation without her. Instead, she meets a delightful, friendly witch who has moved into the playhouse in her backyard. Despite the pointy hat and bubbling cauldron, Ms. M is no typical witch—her brand of magic is more natural and inspirational than built around potions and spells. “The most powerful magic is something anyone can do,” she tells Sadie. “It’s called paying attention.” Under Ms. M’s tutelage, Sadie learns the fine art of birding and realizes that her surroundings abound with marvelous creatures and creations. Marcero’s occasional b&w illustrations play into the light, fun tone, and Ms. M’s understated motivational techniques hit just the right note of subtle encouragement as Sadie looks inside herself and at the world around her to find a different kind of magic. Ages 6–10. Author’s agent: (for Heppermann) Tina Wexler, ICM; (for Koertge) Anne Hawkins, John Hawkins & Associates. Illustrator’s agent: Danielle Smith, Red Fox Literary. (July)

Reviewed on 05/01/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Escape from Baxters’ Barn

Rebecca Bond. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $16.99 (256p) ISBN 978-0-544-33217-1

A heartwarming atmosphere enriches Bond’s chapter book, in which a down-on-his-luck farmer plans to burn down his barn to collect insurance money. Burdock, a scrappy, one-eyed cat, learns of the plot after sneaking into the farmhouse to get warm. Inspired by a caring owl who swoops in with a plan, the barn residents band together to carry out a thrilling escape. Bond (The House That George Built) excels in creating characters whose personalities flirt with but defy typecasting. An anything-but-lazy pig works tirelessly to dig a hole under the barn wall to facilitate the animals’ flight; a take-charge nanny goat’s patience and kindness exceeds her stubbornness; and free-spirited Burdock, though tempted to make a break for it, puts the others’ wellbeing ahead of his own safety. Among numerous snippets of humor are inadvertent bunglings of clichés (“My wish is your command!”). In the tradition of Garth Williams’s pen-and-ink barnyard images, Bond’s energetically sketched b&w illustrations illuminate the animals’ distinct dispositions as well as their communal courage and devotion. Ages 6–9. Agent: Judy Sue Goodwin Sturges, Studio Goodwin Sturges. (July)

Reviewed on 05/01/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Peace Tree from Hiroshima: The Little Bonsai with a Big Story

Sandra Moore, illus. by Kazumi Wilds. Tuttle, $14.95 (32p) ISBN 978-4-8053-1347-3

First-time author Moore draws from the story of a centuries-old bonsai tree that was donated to the United States for the 1976 bicentennial. The miniature white pine, she explains, became known as the Peace Tree, “because it is a symbol of friendship between Japan and America.” The tree narrates its journey, beginning with its birth in an island forest “nearly four hundred years ago” where it is collected and subsequently tended to by a man named Otaro. An elderly Otaro gives the bonsai to his son, who passes it to his son, and so on. “In 1945, something terrible happened,” the tree says as Wilds (All About Japan) shows a tiny airplane on an page streaked with dark purples and grays; the next pages show a vast expanse of beige rubble, the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima. The tree and its caretaker survived, and Moore goes on to trace the bonsai’s path to the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. Closing notes separate fact from fiction and discuss the art of bonsai in this straightforward but affecting tribute to patience, dedication, and a generosity of spirit that surmounted tragedy. Ages 8–up. (July)

Reviewed on 05/01/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Mummy Cat

Marcus Ewert, illus. by Lisa Brown. Clarion, $16.99 (48p) ISBN 978-0-544-34082-4

Once every century, deep within an Egyptian pyramid, a mummified cat “who’s passed through Death” rises from his coffin and goes to the resting place of his beloved mistress, the “girl-queen, Hat-shup-set,” hoping she will rise from the dead, as well. As the cat wanders from room to room, still wrapped head to tail in white cloth, he passes by painted scenes from the queen’s reign and their joyful days together—before their untimely deaths from a scorpion sting. The paintings are more than decoration: if readers are observant, they will notice that the pictures actually tell a story of jealousy, dastardly murder, and justified comeuppance. Ewert’s (10,000 Dresses) rhymes are fairly conventional (“Their couch was set beside the pool/ The shade from date trees kept them cool”), but his narration has the right tinge of sadness, spookiness, and suspense. It makes a fine red herring for Brown’s (Emily’s Blue Period) detailed, atmospheric pictures—which is where this terrifically original and ultimately happy story actually unfolds. Ages 6–9. Agent: Charlotte Sheedy, Charlotte Sheedy Literary Agency. (July)

Reviewed on 05/01/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Edmond, the Moonlit Party

Astrid Desbordes, trans. from the French by Claudia Zoe Bedrick, illus. by Marc Boutavant. Enchanted Lion (Consortium, dist.), $17.95 (32p) ISBN 978-1-59270-174-2

Desbordes revisits themes from her 2010 picture book, Daydreams of a Solitary Hamster, as she explores the eccentricities of three animals that live in a chestnut tree. Readers first meet Edmond, a lonely orange-red squirrel who generally stays at home making nut jam and fuzzy pompom hats. Elsewhere in the tree live George, an owl who loves to disguise himself as other animals, and Harry, a bear known for throwing can’t-miss parties. When the night of Harry’s latest party arrives, the highlight of which is a “nothing tart” he has baked, George persuades Edmond to attend. Boutavant’s eyeball-searing backgrounds in bright blues, yellows, and oranges can be a bit intense at first, but his characteristically retro-styled scenes exude homespun fun, especially as costumed animals dance and cavort at Harry’s party. There are some odd digressions and musings—at the party, an ant asks a seagull (who is actually George in disguise) “what the vast emptiness of sea and sky is like”—but readers will still walk away understanding the value in breaking out of one’s routines. Ages 4–8. (July)

Reviewed on 05/01/2015 | Details & Permalink

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