Monday, May 17, 2010

PW's Starred Reviews

Publisher's Weekly May/June

The Pirate of Kindergarten by George Ella Lyon, illus. by Lynne Avril, Atheneum/Jackson, $16.99 (40p) ISBN 978-1-4169-5024-0

Ginny has double vision, although she doesn't receive that diagnosis (and a treatment plan) until the final pages of this vividly empathetic book. Without lecturing or making Ginny the object of pity, Lyons (Sleepsong) and Avril (Every Cowgirl Needs a Horse), who works in cheery but remarkably expressive pastels, show how disorientating and alienating it feels when something as fundamental as visual perception goes awry. "If she didn't keep her mind tied tight when Ms. Cleo gave them rabbit pictures, she might cut out one ear and another and another. Once she got so mad, she stuck the scissors in the paste." The arrival of a vision screener at school is a little gem of narrative tension: since Ginny can see fine when one eye is covered, will her problem be caught? Readers will be reassured and gratified to know that the answer is yes ("Do you see two of me?" asks the nurse kindly. "Do you know... that most people see only one?") Even those with 20/20 vision will feel Ginny's sense of relief, and close the book confident of her progress. Ages 4–8. (June)

The Dancing Pancake by Eileen Spinelli, illus. by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff, Knopf, $12.99 (256p) ISBN 978-0-375-85870-3

Spinelli (who collaborated with Lew-Vriethoff on Summerhouse Time) again effectively employs free verse in this series of poems told by 11-year-old Bindi, whose parents' recent separation has thrown her life into upheaval. With her father gone, money is tight, so her mother and aunt open a diner, the Dancing Pancake. Bindi runs the gamut of expected emotions--from pretended indifference through sorrow and anger to tentative joy at her parents' possible reunion--in a fresh, unadorned voice that is always believable and sympathetic: "I have to say,/ I'm starting to think/ maybe it will be/ fun, being in/ the restaurant business./ Did I say that?/ (Not out loud)." The short sentences and straightforward expression of often complex feelings make the book accessible to younger or reluctant readers. Spinelli's secondary characters are affectionately drawn, from Bindi's diverse school friends to the teenage waitress, shy foreign dishwasher, and diner guests, including a homeless woman whom Bindi befriends. Bindi's struggles are credible and moving; while nothing is easily resolved, readers will be more than content with the hopeful conclusion. Final art not seen by PW. Ages 8–12. (May)
The Last Best Days of Summer by Valerie Hobbs, FSG/Foster, $16.99 (192p) ISBN 978-0-374-34670-6

Like the final stretch of freedom before school begins, there's something quietly magical--and bittersweet--about Hobbs's (Anything but Ordinary) latest novel. Hidden beneath the ordinary anxieties of a 12-year-old starting middle school (Will she be popular? Will her clothes be the right style?), lies a tearjerker that is both insightful and penetrating. When Lucy embarks on her annual trip to her grandmother's lake cabin, she couldn't be more excited to escape her overprotective parents and do all her favorite things (bake cookies, go on canoe adventures). But nothing goes as planned. Eddie, a neighborhood kid, shows up unexpectedly and ruins Lucy's precious alone time with her grandmother, who isn't acting like herself. The portrayals of serious illnesses (Alzheimer's, Down syndrome) are handled with a delicate touch, and Lucy's inner conflicts will readily hit home with readers. Despite her condition, Grams's advice to Lucy is priceless: "Centering? It's that place you go to when you want to know what to do, the best and right thing. It will always be there inside you when you need it." Ages 10–14. (May)
Picture the Dead by Adele Griffin, illus. by Lisa Brown, Sourcebooks Fire, $14.99 (272p) ISBN 978-1-4022-3712-6

In this smartly restrained ghost story, orphan Jennie has already lost her twin brother to the Civil War, but when her brooding cousin, Quinn, returns wounded to their Massachusetts home, she learns that Will--Quinn's brother and Jennie's fiancĂ©--is also dead. Displaced and treated like a servant by her miserly aunt, Jennie succumbs to Quinn's romantic advances, in spite of a ghostly recurring sensation that she is being choked, and her sense that something's amiss with Will's death. Integrated letters, scrawled notes, and Brown's (How to Be) digital portraits (based on daguerreotypes) provide foreshadowing, while contributing to the unease that gnaws at Jennie's stark yet beautiful narration. Through her association with a spirit photographer, Mr. Geist, Jennie presumes that Will is jealous over her engagement to Quinn, but Griffin's (the Vampire Island series) house of mirrors unveils secrets more sinister. Despite the powerful conclusion, it's moments of quiet perception that should most resonate, as when Mr. Geist distinguishes between memory and haunting: "For if memory is the wave that buoys our grief, haunting is the undertow that drags us to its troubled source." Ages 12–up. (May)

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