Monday, December 14, 2009

PW's Starred Reviews

-- Publishers Weekly, 12/14/2009

Picture Books

Bunny Days by Tao Nyeu. Dial, $16.99 (48p) ISBN 978-0-8037-3330-5

As in Wonder Bear, a large white bear looms large in Nyeu’s latest, but this sophomore effort is a world apart. In three short and endearingly silly stories, six adorable bunnies prove to be the very definition of “victims of circumstance,” thanks to their industrious but clueless neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Goat. The good news is that the Zen-like Bear puts things right; the comically ambivalent news is that the cure often seems as bad as the disease. Thus, when Mrs. Goat unknowingly extracts the napping bunnies out of their hole with her vacuum cleaner, Bear decides the best way to rid them of grime is to hang them from a flagpole and blast them with “the big fan.” Nyeu’s winkingly demure writing, fluidly schematic line drawings, and limited palette (each chapter is keyed to a single dominant color) make knowingly naïf foils for the outrageous acts and outlandish solutions that the bunnies endure. Whereas Wonder Bear was sentimental and loosely (at best) plotted, this sardonic, tightly constructed satire offers spot-on fun for the age group, even as it gleefully sends the primly narrated animal story up the river. Ages 3–5. (Jan.)

The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy) by Barbara Kerley, illus. by Edwin Fotheringham. Scholastic Press, $17.99 (48p) ISBN 978-0-545-12508-6

Kerley and Fotheringham (What to Do About Alice?) pair up again to offer a behind-the-scenes glimpse of another famous family. Wanting to present a portrait of her papa beyond that of just humorist and author, Mark Twain’s 13-year-old daughter Susy spent a year chronicling her observations and reflections. While her entire work was published in 1985 (Papa: An Intimate Biography of Mark Twain), Kerley contextualizes the teenager’s admiring musings with vivid familial backdrops. So when Kerley notes that Twain’s wife often would “clean up any questionable passages” in his writing, Susy’s biography states that this meant “some delightfully dreadful part must be scratched out.” Minibooklets titled “Journal” appear in the fold of many spreads, containing excerpts from Susy’s notebook (some may find the flowery typeface of the inserts hard to read). Adding dynamic flair to the limited palettes of each digitally created scene are curlicues representing words, which emanate wildly from pen tips, pages, and mouths. Author notes about Susy and her father, a time line of Twain’s life, and tips for writing an “extraordinary biography” complete this accessible and inventive vision of an American legend. Ages 7–11. (Jan.)

Fiction

Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce. HarperCollins/Walden Pond, $16.99 (320p) ISBN 978-0-06-183683-1

The hero of Boyce’s enchanting third novel has grown a bit over the summer. “Seven inches is not a spurt,” his father says. “Seven inches is a mutation.” Having facial hair and the height of an adult is a nuisance for 12-year-old Liam, until he realizes he can pass for a grownup. The charade escalates into danger when Liam passes himself off as his own father and wins a trip to a new theme park in China with his friend Florida, where they will be the first to experience an out-of-this-world new thrill ride. “The Rocket” turns out to be a real rocket, and the novel opens with Liam and four other kids literally lost in space. What follows is a hilarious and heartfelt examination of “dadliness” in all its forms, including idiotic competitiveness and sports chatter, but also genuine care and concern. Luckily for the errant space cadets, Liam possesses skills honed playing World of Warcraft online—yes, here is a novel, finally, that confirms that playing computer games can be good for you. A can’t-miss offering from an author whose latest novel may be his best yet. Ages 8–12. (Jan.)

Eighth-Grade Superzero by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich. Scholastic/Levine, $16.99 (336p) ISBN 978-0-545-09676-8

Rhuday-Perkovich delivers a masterful debut, telling a layered middle-school tale filled with characters who are delightfully flawed and, more importantly, striving to overcome those flaws. Reggie McKnight has been saddled with the nickname “Pukey” thanks to a disastrous incident on the first day of school. Attempting to get through the rest of the year unnoticed, he spends his time with his best friends, political activist Ruthie (who shares Reggie’s Jamaican background) and aspiring rapper Joe C. While working on a project at a homeless shelter with his church’s youth group, he becomes increasingly interested and involved in the community, leading to his participation in his school’s presidential race, first as an adviser to a classmate, eventually as a candidate. Rhuday-Perkovich doesn’t take shortcuts, forcing Reggie to deal with a world in which he doesn’t always get the answers or successes he wants, and the book shines as a result. Messages of social justice—whether through church projects, parental discussions, or recognition of racial biases among his friends—complement the story and characters, rather than upstage them. Ages 10–14. (Jan.)

A Million Shades of Gray by Cynthia Kadohata. S&S/Atheneum, $16.99 (224p) ISBN 978-1-4169-1883-7

Newbery Medalist Kadohata (Kira-Kira) shows that truth has as many shades of gray as an elephant in this emotionally taut survival story, set in war-torn South Vietnam. After American troops leave his village, Y’Tin, his family, and his neighbors are left to fend off their enemies themselves. But Y’Tin’s mind isn’t on war. It’s on his pet elephant, Lady, and his dreams of opening an elephant-training school. His hopes vanish when North Vietnamese soldiers devastate his small village (Y’Tin helps dig a mass grave at one point). Y’Tin manages to escape into the jungle with a friend, where he reunites with Lady, but separated from family and friends, his thoughts grow dark. As the days go by, he becomes angrier and less trusting, wondering “if he would ever feel safe again or if safety was gone from his life forever.” Illustrating the wisdom of Y’Tin’s father’s words—“The jungle changes a man”—Kadohata delves deep into the soul of her protagonist while making a faraway place and the stark consequences of war seem very near. Y’Tin’s inner conflicts and changing perception of the world will haunt readers. Ages 10–up. (Jan.)

Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers. St. Martin’s Griffin, $9.99 paper (256p) ISBN 978-0-312-57380-5

Backstabbing, rumor mills, and freeze-outs by the in crowd are familiar territory, but Summers (Cracked Up to Be) takes these traumatic experiences to a new level of nasty. Regina Afton, once a member of the elite Fearsome Fivesome, is dumped after word gets out that she slept with her queen bee best friend’s boyfriend at a party. What no one knows—or doesn’t believe—is that it wasn’t consensual: Regina was nearly raped. In a series of pranks that go beyond the usual cold stares (the word “whore” painted on her locker, books thrown in the pool, a vicious “IH8RA” Web page, a four-on-one beating), her ex-friends exact a revenge meant to inflict permanent damage. Regina’s only salvation is her nascent friendship with a loner she bullied back in her heyday, but even his forgiveness is hard won. Parents and teachers are suspiciously absent (and oblivious to Regina’s suffering), but it’s Regina’s lack of recourse that makes this very real story all the more frightening and effective. Regina’s every emotion is palpable, and it’s impossible not to feel every punch—physical or emotional—she takes. Ages 12–up. (Jan.)

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