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The Witch’s Boy

Kelly Barnhill. Algonquin Young Readers, $16.95 (384p) ISBN 978-1-61620-351-1

In a story of an unexpected hero, a thief’s daughter, and some very tricky magic, Barnhill weaves a powerful narrative about the small tragedies that happen when parents fail their children, even with the best intentions. After Ned’s twin brother, Tam, drowns, his mother, the village’s Sister Witch, binds Tam’s soul to Ned, who grows up as an awkward, stuttering boy ostracized by the rest of his village. Áine’s widower father loves her, but he loves his life as a Bandit King more. The magic that touches both Ned and Áine draws their lives inexorably together as they are caught up in the machinations of King Ott’s selfish empire-building. Barnhill (The Mostly True Story of Jack) makes bold character choices: Ned is soft, but never weak, while Áine is tough, prickly, yet sympathetic. Peripheral adults are well fleshed out, from Ned’s father, devastated by the loss of one child and afraid to show his love for the other, to a sensible queen who knows the value of a good witch. Barnhill elegantly joins the story’s diverse threads in a complex tale whose poignancy never turns sentimental. Ages 9–up. Agent: Steven Malk, Writer’s House. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/01/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Red Pencil

Andrea Davis Pinkney, illus. by Shane W. Evans. Little, Brown, $17 (336p) ISBN 978-0-316-24780-1

Told in free verse and set in the South Darfur region of Sudan in 2003 and 2004, this potent novel from Pinkney (Hand in Hand: Ten Black Men Who Changed America) is built around the distinctive voice and drawings of 12-year-old narrator Amira. The first half of the novel examines Amira’s life in her rural village, where she helps out with farm chores, wishes she could attend school, and has a close relationship with her father, Dando, who “sees what is possible in me.” After Janjaweed militants invade, inflicting great loss, Amira flees to a refugee camp, where she expresses her creativity through art, after a teacher gives her the pencil of the title. Evans’s (We March) loosely drawn and deeply affecting line illustrations heighten Amira’s emotional reality; in one image, accompanying the poem “Shock,” a simple figure surrounded by a violently scribbled border demonstrates Amira’s despair: “My whole heart./ A sudden break./ My Bright,/ turned black.” Pinkney faces war’s horrors head on, yet also conveys a sense of hope and promise. Ages 9–up. Agent: Rebecca Sherman, Writers House. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/01/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Where I Belong

Mary Downing Hahn. Clarion, $16.99 (240p) ISBN 978-0-544-23020-0

Ostracized for his long hair and standoffish attitude, sixth-grader Brendan Doyle takes solace in his art and his belief in the legendary Green Man, an ancient spirit who protects the forest and its inhabitants. When Brendan stumbles upon an imposing tree in the woods and builds a tree house where he can escape from bullies, as well as his nagging foster mother, he’s certain that he’s finally “found the place where I belong.” The 12-year-old meets two kindred spirits—Ed, an elderly man he thinks is the Green Man, and an insightful girl named Shea who is his own age—and believes that both of them, like him, belong in “the real real world, not the fake real world.” After Brendan is brutally beaten by thugs, his two friends help him, in very different ways, to better understand what is real and where he truly belongs. Hahn (Mr. Death’s Blue-Eyed Girls) gives Brendan a narrative voice that is urgent, contemplative, and believable in this nuanced story about transformation, trust, identity, friendship, and loss. Ages 9–12. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/01/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Life of Zarf: The Trouble with Weasels

Rob Harrell. Dial, $14.99 (288p) ISBN 978-0-8037-4103-4

Harrell, who toyed with fantasy conventions in his graphic novel Monster on the Hill, plays around in the world of fairy tales in his entertainingly goofy middle-grade debut. Zarf the troll, whose grandfather was famously fooled by the three “billy goats gruff,” narrates his hapless middle-school existence in the medieval-meets-modern town of Cotswin. Trolls are already at the bottom of the social ladder, and Zarf’s temper isn’t doing him any favors. After the king is captured by dreaded Snuffweasels and the useless Prince Roquefort (Zarf’s nemesis at school) is put in charge of the kingdom, Zarf quickly winds up in the dungeon. He follows his grandfather’s advice to use his inherent trollish anger to do good, breaking out of prison and then heading off with his friends, worrywart Kevin Littlepig and unfunny jester-in-training Chester, to try to save the king. Harrell mixes references to Nerf, Red Bull, and cell phones into his fairy tale setting, which is brought to life in b&w spot illustrations throughout. A promising series kickoff full of off-kilter action and humor. Ages 8–12. Agent: Daniel Lazar, Writers House. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/01/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Contract

Derek Jeter, with Paul Mantell. S&S/Jeter, $16.99 (176p) ISBN 978-1-4814-2312-0

Eight-year-old Derek Jeter has a lofty dream: to play shortstop for the New York Yankees. While his friends and even his teacher belittle his goal, Derek’s parents’ mantra is “you can do anything you want in life, if you work hard enough and stick with it.” They put together a contract for Derek—its rules include “Respect Others,” “Respect Yourself,” and “Work Hard”—which is predictably tested when Derek is assigned to a Little League coach who favors his own son to the detriment of the team. There’s a noble message in this series opener and first title from star shortstop Jeter’s publishing imprint, but it’s delivered too cleanly. Derek is a picture-perfect kid (with picture-perfect parents), a third grader who constantly takes the moral high road and reasons things like, “He knew his dad was only trying to teach him a valuable lesson.” Knowing the (real-life) outcome of Jeter’s story helps offset the book’s lesson-in-disguise qualities, but it may be hard for readers to find common ground with a character who always makes the right decisions. Ages 8–12. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/01/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Meet the Bigfeet

Kevin Sherry. Scholastic Press, $8.99 (128p) ISBN 978-0-545-55617-0

In this first title in the Yeti Files series, Sherry (Turtle Island) tries out the chapter-book format with mixed results. His characters—yeti hero Blizz Richards and a whole community of “cryptids” (creatures of mythology, legend, and folk lore)—have all the googly-eyed charm that makes his picture books so much fun. And he still excels at a kind of manic level of explanation, giving his creatures heavily annotated hideouts (it’s nice to know that even yetis have unfinished art projects) and a sweet backstory (yetis and their ilk are shy because “the secrecy keeps magic and mystery in the minds of humans. And we all know how important that is”). But the story, which turns on whether a crazed cryptozoologist named George Vanquist will crash the yeti family reunion and expose everyone, doesn’t gain much traction. There are plenty of incident, jokes, and gags (Blizz pays the unicorn who flies him to the reunion with a burrito gift card), but the buffoonish Vanquist isn’t enough of a comic menace to propel the story forward. Ages 7–10. Agent: Teresa Kietlinski, Prospect Agency. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/01/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Pied Piper of Hamelin

Renate Raecke, trans. from the German by Anthea Bell, illus. by Lisbeth Zwerger. inedition (IPG, dist.), $17.99 (32p) ISBN 978-988-8240-82-1

Zwerger (The Little Mermaid) adds a version of the Pied Piper legend to her list of exquisitely illustrated fairy tales. Unlike other tales collected by the Brothers Grimm, the original bears an alleged date—June 26, 1284—which gives it the air of a historical account. In Bell’s always-graceful translation, Raecke recounts the Hamelin townspeople’s refusal to pay a piper who has magically rid the town of a plague of rats. Seething with resentment, the piper returns, playing a new melody—“The people of Hamelin had never heard anything like that tune before”—and leading the town’s children away forever. Zwerger’s delicate paintings, with their expanses of empty space, speak of absence and mourning. One scene looks over the shoulder of the Pied Piper as he plays his tune for a young child. The piper’s angry scarlet hat dominates the image, and the child in his sights looks as tender and vulnerable as a mouse. One closes the book remembering that the quaint houses and village squares so common to the cozy world of fairy tales are often home to much darkness. Ages 7–9. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/01/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Voyage

Billy Collins, illus. by Karen Romagna. Bunker Hill (Midpoint Trade, dist.), $16.95 (32p) ISBN 978-1-59373-154-0

In his first picture book, Collins, a former U.S. poet laureate, uses one long, incantatory sentence to describe the way a child enters the world of a book and loses himself in it. Newcomer Romagna paints a dark-haired boy who sets out in a wooden dinghy, hoists the sail, and catches the wind. “And when he loses sight of land,” Collins writes, “the boat becomes a book/ which the boy begins to read... and when he has finished reading, the boy becomes the book.” A pirate with an eye patch brandishes a cutlass; the boy raises his own cutlass, which evaporates like water, taking the pirate with it; then, as the full moon rises and leaves a trail of light along the waves, the boy greets a friendly dolphin. It reads less like a story for children and more like adult nostalgia for a boyhood past, and Romagna’s aquatic landscapes fare better than her uneven portraits of the story’s young hero. Still, the poem’s lulling rhythms make it a fine bedtime readaloud. Ages 4–up. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/01/2014 | Details & Permalink

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While You Were Napping

Jenny Offill, illus. by Barry Blitt. Random/Schwartz & Wade, $16.99 (40p) ISBN 978-0-375-86572-5

A mother promises her remonstrating, wriggling son that he “won’t miss a thing” while he’s napping. But if his older sister is to be believed, the Best Party Ever took place right outside his window. “COMING SOON! BIG FUN! STAY AWAKE!” announces a skywriter, followed by robots, pirates, firemen, the uncovering of a dinosaur skeleton, and an apparent daylong moratorium on “Don’ts,” which meant kids could drive bulldozers, throw mud, drink ketchup, race in their underpants, and shoot off fireworks. “We all took pictures to prove to you how dangerous it was since you were the only kid napping when it happened,” writes Offill (Sparky), whose channeling of sibling snark is a thing of beauty. Blitt (George Washington’s Birthday: A Mostly True Tale) mischievously and masterfully choreographs the neverending festivities, which teeter between backyard reality and thwarted, dreamy desire. His watercolors will reward close-reading visual joke connoisseurs, as well as those who can’t wait to find out what that poor kid (he could be any of us, really) misses out on next. Ages 4–8. Author’s agent: Sally Wofford-Girand, Union Literary. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/01/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Breaking News: Bear Alert!

David Biedrzycki. Charlesbridge, $17.95 (32p) ISBN 978-1-58089-663-4

Chaos reigns in this mock televised caper, when a children’s nature show called Our Furry Planet is interrupted by a bulletin about two bears on the loose. The brown, cartoonish bears ramble along upright, try out binoculars acquired from the frightened Furry Planet host, and appear oblivious to the panic they cause as they dance in the streets and visit a photo booth. Biedrzycki (Me and My Dragon), whose illustrations call to mind Dan Santat’s work in the Oh No! books, composes the landscape-oriented pages as a wide-screen, high-definition news broadcast, complete with man-on-the-scene interviews—a clueless mother is too busy with her phone to notice the bears; a diner cook explains his refusal to serve the “barefoot” bears—a scrolling blue ticker with updates from a “Skycam 3” helicopter, and multiple security videos. Two burglars and their cat take advantage of the fray, as seen on video at a “Paddington’s” department store, until the bears accidentally foil the crooks and are deemed heroes. Bear wordplay, puns, and children’s book references abound in this romp, which comically exploits our cultures of distraction and surveillance. Ages 4–8. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/01/2014 | Details & Permalink

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