cover image SWEAR TO HOWDY


Wendelin Van Draanen, . . Knopf, $15.95 (144pp) ISBN 978-0-375-82505-7

Van Draanen's (Flipped ; the Sammy Keyes novels) trenchant tale introduces two best friends who are constantly making pacts—hammering their fists, trading blood and pledging secrecy: "I swear to howdy, if you tell a soul...." When narrator Rusty's family moves in next door to Joey's family, the middle schoolers become inseparable; says Rusty, "I had more fun in that single summer than I'd had in my entire life combined." Rusty's idea of "fun" won't be shared by everyone. For example, Joey is swimming as he teaches Rusty how to "make righteous farts" on command, a fish grabs onto Joey's "privates," and Joey avenges himself by frying the fish "to a crisp" and eating it. The boys put bugs in the sodas that their uppity older sisters are selling at a baseball game, costing the girls their jobs. Gradually the mood grows darker. Hoping to avoid a "switchin' " by his abusive, alcoholic father, Joey tries to keep the family goldfish alive, and surreptitiously purchases a string of replacements when fish after fish dies. And when Joey's father hires the boys to shoot some pesky squirrels, Joey mistakenly kills the man's beloved cat—an accident Rusty joins him in concealing. But the friends' secret-keeping skills are put to the ultimate test when a seemingly innocent joke results in tragedy. While the ending is overly tidy, the book's sympathetic protagonists, convincing colloquial dialogue and poignant conflicts will likely leave an impression on young readers. Ages 10-up. (Oct.)