cover image The Zebra Wall

The Zebra Wall

Kevin Henkes. Greenwillow Books, $19.99 (160pp) ISBN 978-0-688-07568-2

The softened watercolor worlds of Henkes's picture books sometimes distract readers from his acute understanding of just how harsh life can be. This awareness is glimpsed in his first novel, Two Under Par, but this new one is even more unflinching and more sensitive. Adine Vorlob doesn't like her Aunt Irene, who has a whiskery moustache and a habit of smoking narrow brown cigarettes, and readers will find it all too easy to dislike Irene, too. But she is moving into Adine's room while the Vorlobs adjust to the new baby, which surprises them all by being a boy (Adine's four other siblings are girls). The arrival of this boy breaks family tradition in many ways, not the least of which is the alphabetical order of the girls' namesAdine, Bernice, Carla, Dot and Effie. This is not another new-baby story; Henkes knows that every worry in a child's life has many layers. He depicts Adine's concerns with depth and sweetly persuasive touches of compassion, treating the thoughts and feelings of a 10-year-old with uncanny justice. Ages 8-up. (April)