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A Song for Ella Grey

David Almond. Delacorte, $16.99 (272p) ISBN 978-0-553-53359-0

Almond (The Tightrope Walkers) gracefully interfuses ancient archetypes with contemporary situations in this retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. Set in northern England—a landscape familiar to Almond’s fans—the novel is told from the point of view of Claire, a restless high school student, whose dreams and imagination reach beyond the confines of her cold, dreary surroundings. “I wanted to experience that thing of being just me, moving on my own across the earth,” she laments. During a much-anticipated trip to the beach with some close friends, Claire is enchanted by Orpheus, a wandering musician whose beauty and skills with the lyre seem otherworldly. When Claire’s best friend Ella instantly falls in love with this stranger, Claire has misgivings; after it becomes apparent that Orpheus is just as smitten with Ella, Claire agrees to help them secretly elope, not knowing the height of wonder and depth of despair that will follow. Like Orpheus’s music, Almond’s lyrical narrative will sweep readers on a journey to unearthly, mysterious realms and back. Mythological characters come to life while remaining enigmatic enough to set imaginations spinning. Ages 12–up. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Beast of Cretacea

Todd Strasser. Candlewick, $18.99 (432p) ISBN 978-0-7636-6901-0

Equal parts Moby-Dick retelling, environmental cautionary tale, and coming-of-age story, Strasser’s (Fallout) fantastical SF epic blends disparate pieces into a harmonious whole. The saga begins with 17-year-old Ishmael setting off from a ravaged, dying Earth for life aboard a large fishing trawler on the planet Cretacea, hoping to send enough money back home to secure his foster parents’ future. Along with his small, diverse group of nippers, or young crewmen, Ishmael struggles to adjust to a world with water and sunlight, while facing the kinds of trials that shape a person’s future. The journey carries him through encounters with pirates, mysteries about his past, the search for his foster brother, and into the ultimate adventure of them all: attempting to capture the Great Terrafin. Filled with luscious depictions of life at sea that harken back to the golden age of science fiction, Strasser weaves an engrossing tapestry that evokes a sense of wonder and calls to the imagination. An unfortunately sanctimonious and heavy-handed ending is the only blemish on an otherwise pristine horizon. Ages 12–up. Agent: Stephen Barbara, Inkwell Management. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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You Can’t See the Elephants

Susan Kreller, trans. from the German by Elizabeth Gaffney. Putnam, $16.99 (192p) ISBN 978-0-399-17209-0

In a debut novel so real it hurts, German author Kreller depicts the frustrations of a 13-year-old girl who has trouble getting adults to see the truth happening under their noses. Mascha’s father always takes a few weeks off in the summer to grieve his wife, leaving Mascha with her grandparents in a close-knit small town. There she meets Max and Julia, two children covered with bruises. One day, when Mascha is outside the children’s house, she witnesses a scene so terrible that she has to tell someone. Mascha’s grandparents don’t want to listen, so she takes matters into her own hands. What starts as an act of salvation takes a nightmarish turn, and it is Mascha—not the true villain—who is shunned. Kreller’s terse prose, eloquently translated by Gaffney, captures the desperation and helplessness of a girl who just wants to do the right thing. Kreller deals with the topic of abuse honestly, conveying the emotional responses to horrific circumstances. Despite her reputation in the community, Mascha will emerge as a hero to readers, and her actions will prompt discussion and debate. Ages 10–up. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Kiki and Jacques

Susan Ross. Holiday House, $16.95 (128p) ISBN 978-0-8234-3427-5

Jacques, a middle-school student in an economically struggling Maine community, grapples with a boatload of challenges in Ross’s debut novel. When a few Somali families relocate to Jacques’s neighborhood, their presence is noticed, but not appreciated by everyone. Although Jacques was a shoe-in for soccer captain, he suddenly faces tight competition from an incredibly talented Somali boy. More stressful for Jacques, however, are a dangerous older kid threatening him and his family, and a classmate, Lucy, who gives him the silent treatment after he initiates a friendship with a Somali girl, Kiki. To top it off, Jacques’s widowed father has lost his job and is drinking, and his Grandmère’s bridal store, the family’s main source of income, faces closure. With a good heart and a powerful sense of right and wrong (Jacques tells his grandmother, “I have some babysitting money. You can have it”), Jacques is a model for readers facing their own ethical dilemmas. His friendships and social interactions ring true, but the enormity of problems he faces and the book’s picture-perfect resolutions strain credulity. Ages 8–12. Agent: Susan Cohen, Writers House. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Gilbert the Ghost

Guido van Genechten. Clavis (Legato, dist.), $18.95 (32p) ISBN 978-1-60537-223-5

Gilbert is different than his fellow ghosts at Ghost School—not only is he a pale pink, instead of white, but when he tries to say “Boo,” all that comes out is a stammering “Ba... ba... bahoo.” The principal banishes Gilbert to the menacing “Abandoned Tower” to learn how to be scary, but when he meets Meow, a black cat with a purple bow around his tail, the two new friends turn the forbidding, decrepit tower into a cozy abode, complete with curtains, vases of flowers, and a roaring fireplace. It’s a sweet story about outsider friendship that is just slightly scary in places. While the plot is as airy as Gilbert himself, it’s hard not to be charmed by van Genechten’s smiley, rosy-cheeked ghosts, who could give Casper a run for his money in the cuteness department. Ages 4–up. (July)

Reviewed on 07/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Pumpkins, Pumpkins Everywhere

Smriti Prasadam-Halls, illus. by Lorena Alvarez. Parragon, $6.99 (32p) ISBN 978-1-4748-0241-3

Lest one think that pumpkins are only good for pies and carving, Prasadam-Halls (Don’t Call Me Sweet!) and Alvarez (The Noon Balloon) explore emotions, opposites, and general Halloween fun, as evoked in glowing jack-o’-lantern faces. “Pumpkin happy,/ pumpkin sad,/ pumpkin cheeky,/ pumpkin mad,” begins the author, as Alvarez shows two sisters preparing to go trick-or-treating; the “sad” is triggered when the younger sister sees her older sibling dash off with her other friends, a feeling reflected in the faces of both the girl and the jack’-o-lantern she carries. The sisters soon reconcile, and the story expands to include dozens of costumed children who snag candy, dance, and take part in a parade. Alvarez’s illustrations have the fresh, modern feel of an indie webcomic, creating an inviting backdrop for Prasadam-Halls’s bouncy, gourd-driven rhymes. Ages 4–8. Author’s agent: Jodie Hodges, United Agents. Illustrator’s agency: Bright Agency. (June)

Reviewed on 07/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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There Was an Old Mummy Who Swallowed a Spider

Jennifer Ward, illus. by Steve Gray. Amazon/Two Lions, $16.99 (32p) ISBN 978-1-4778-2637-9

The duo behind There Was a Coyote Who Swallowed a Flea, There Was an Old Monkey Who Swallowed a Frog, and other titles soldier on with a Halloween-themed riff on the cumulative “There Was an Old Lady” nursery rhyme. In this version, a bulgy-eyed mummy rises from its sarcophagus and proceeds to swallow a string of objects, animals, and people, including a spider, crow, bone, and witch. In increasingly frenetic cartoons, Gray stages the debacle on the grounds of a quintessential haunted house, precariously perched in a tree over a graveyard. Full-spread scenes of the mummy chasing his victims alternate with glimpses of what’s going on in his belly—the swallowed creatures appear to be having a reasonably good time, simmering green witch’s brew over a campfire—which should make for some enjoyably silly Halloween reading. Ages 4–8. Agent: Stefanie Von Borstel, Full Circle Literary. (July)

Reviewed on 07/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Tacky and the Haunted Igloo

Helen Lester, illus. by Lynn Munsinger. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $16.99 (32p) ISBN 978-0-544-33994-1

Tacky and his fellow penguins have transformed their home into a haunted igloo in preparation for Halloween, but the festivities turn truly scary after the hunters from Tacky’s original 1988 picture book show up, and they’re hungry: “We’re trick-or treatin’ ghosties/ And we ain’t no toothie fairies/ So give us all yer yummy treats/ Or we do something skearies.” Luckily, Tacky (who had been struggling to come up with a sufficiently scary costume before the hunters arrived) shows up just in time, dressed as none other than one of the hunters. The ensuing shenanigans offer lots of laughs—after all, what better to satisfy one’s appetite for schadenfreude than seeing someone scary get scared (or “skeared” as the case may be)? As ever, Tacky proves that even the unruliest of penguins can save the day. Ages 4–8. (July)

Reviewed on 07/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Otter Loves Halloween!

Sam Garton. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, $9.99 (32p) ISBN 978-0-06-236666-5

What happens when the frightener becomes the frightened? That’s the problem confronting the star of I Am Otter and Otter in Space when the trick-or-treaters who show up prove to be “very scary—almost too scary!” (And this, even when Otter is herself dressed up as a “superscary witch!”) Otter remains a master of deflection: racing under the bed to hide, “I took Pig with me too. He was really scared.” Luckily, her human Otter Keeper is there to offer both comfort and a costume tweak: a cardboard box mask with a monster’s face drawn on it. “Things are much less scary when you can’t really see them,” notes a much-happier Otter. The joyful chaos of everyday life with a child (or otter) permeates Garton’s cartoons and should keep kids laughing from start to finish. Ages 4–8. Agent: Brooks Sherman, Bent Agency. (July)

Reviewed on 07/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Happy Halloween, Witch’s Cat!

Harriet Muncaster. Harper, $15.99 (32p) ISBN 978-0-06-222916-8

In this warm mother-daughter-focused Halloween celebration, the catsuit-wearing heroine of I Am a Witch’s Cat gives readers a brief primer on colors as she considers her costume options. Once again, Muncaster’s carefully assembled and impressively detailed miniature scenes are a major source of the story’s charm. It opens in the family kitchen where the “special witch’s cat” makes Halloween cookies with her mother, “a good witch.” Paper cutouts of jars line the shelves (are they pickles or something more sinister?), and there’s even a foil-wrapped exhaust hood over the stove. At the store, the girl tries on everything from a green frog costume (“Too slimy!”) to a yellow mummy outfit (“Too tangly!”) before realizing that Halloween is the perfect time for a witch and her familiar to switch places. Ages 4–8. Agent: Jodie Hodges, United Agents. (July)

Reviewed on 07/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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