Right now, nothing sells in YA lit — or, perhaps, in any section of the bookstore — like sexy, paranormal critters. Girls who tire of Twilight rehashes can move on to series about “homicidal fairies,” as Kate Messner puts it in her new middle-grade novel, Sugar and Ice. It’s a mildly satirical jab at today’s best sellers, since the Plattsburgh writer and teacher — and spouse of WPTZ meteorologist Tom Messner — does normal, not paranormal.
Messner’s book about a small-town Adirondack girl who gets a big-time figure-skating scholarship is squarely in the tradition of realist kids’ fiction — the kind that deals with confronting a false friend, not with convincing your boyfriend he should make you undead like him. On the strength of her double toe loop, 12-year-old Claire Boucher, whose biggest public exposure has been serving pancakes at her farm family’s maple breakfasts, finds herself in Lake Placid facing a Russian coach and a bunch of ice queens who’ll do anything to win.
The situation yields the expected drama, and young skating fans will appreciate that Messner knows her way around juvenile and novice competitions, salchows and loops. Some may be disappointed that Claire doesn’t become the next Sasha Cohen. But adults will see the value in a book that suggests it’s not always a bad thing to want company instead of competition: “After all this time training,” writes Messner, “she still felt more like a honeybee than a butterfly, happier as part of a big swarm than out there shining alone.”
Sugar and Ice by Kate Messner, Walker & Company, 271 pages. $16.99.
Stewart Bolger, a character in David Stahler Jr.’s new young-adult novel Spinning Out, thinks he’s Don Quixote. His Dulcinea is the girl costarring with him in his high school’s production of Man of La Mancha. And those pesky windmills? Look no farther than the line of giant wind turbines on the horizon.
It may sound like just a smart teenager’s quirky literary fixation, but Stewart, whose wealthy downstater parents have settled in the Northeast Kingdom, is dead serious. Those turbines are in trouble.
Stahler, who teaches at Lyndon Institute and has written several previous YA novels, knows how kids talk and interact — no punches are pulled. His most original move is to make the novel’s narrator and protagonist not the troubled Stewart but his best friend, Frenchy, a Vermont native who lives in a trailer with his widowed mom.
Unlike Stewart, Frenchy is known as an easygoing, regular guy — a follower. When Stewart drags him into the school play, he has no trouble stepping into the role of loyal, jolly, slightly dim Sancho Panza. But Frenchy isn’t always jolly — he still hasn’t processed the death of his dad, a Guardsman who committed suicide after returning from Iraq. And he isn’t dim: He can see Stewart is losing sight of the line between fiction and reality.
It’s an excellent setup for a novel, though Spinning Out doesn’t finally go anywhere that an adult reader won’t have predicted. YA novels of the countercultural 1970s (think Paul Zindel) sometimes snatched the floor out from under their readers, making them wonder who really was crazy and who was sane. Here, it’s never in doubt, and therapy and treatment are presented as indispensable solutions.
The book’s real subject is one young man’s loyalty to another — not a blind or unquestioning sentiment, but a mighty one. Given that “regular guys” like Frenchy don’t often have leading roles in fiction, and that those “regular guys” are exactly the type of teens who (librarians and parents often lament) aren’t reading these days, the book could serve a neglected audience. It also reminds us that, for every theatrical teen like Stewart who wears a sword to school and waves it around, there are many more tilting at their own private windmills of the mind.
Spinning Out by David Stahler Jr., Chronicle Books, 288 pages. $16.99.
Children learn quickly that grown-ups don’t tell them everything. But the level of adult secrecy in Phoebe Stone’s The Romeo and Juliet Code is out of the ordinary, as preteen readers will recognize. The Middlebury author chose a high point in code breaking and espionage, World War II, for the setting of her fourth young-adult novel. Secrets abound, both personal and political, and the promise of their resolution will keep young readers glued to this inventive, historically grounded story.
At age 11, Felicity Bathburn Budwig is already used to secrets. Her parents — she calls her American dad “my Danny” and her British mom “my Winnie” — have regularly left her alone in their London flat for the evening without explaining what important work kept them away.
But now, in 1941, Felicity’s parents have deposited her at the home of her paternal grandmother (“The Gram”) in coastal Maine to keep her safe from bombing raids. In her new American house, a wind-battered Victorian “full of rifts and lies,” the mysteries seem to multiply. Why did her parents head back to the bombs? Why does Uncle Gideon seem repelled by Danny — his brother — in person, yet rush to meet the mailman and intercept Danny’s letters, which are postmarked from Portugal?
The grand piano in the parlor is inexplicably nailed shut; a picture of Felicity’s parents’ wedding at the back of The Gram’s drawer has a perplexing message of apology scribbled on the back. And who lives behind the bedroom door Felicity has been asked never to open?
Flissy — as she’s nicknamed by her Gram, uncle and Aunt Miami, an unmarried romantic who knows Shakespeare’s play by heart — realizes she must solve these mysteries on her own. The hidden resident, she soon stealthily discovers, is an adopted 12-year-old boy named Derek who’s been recovering from polio and reminds Flissy of the sickly boy in The Secret Garden. One mystery solved, Flissy moves on to the next: She sneaks one of the Portugal letters, sees it’s written entirely in numbers and cracks the code with Derek’s help.
Flissy’s bedroom is the old house’s widow’s walk, through whose windows on four sides the “big, yellow, noisy American moon” sees all. Flissy’s first-person narration is not as densely lyrical as that in Stone’s first novel, All the Blue Moons at the Wallace Hotel. But the girl’s quirky insights, such as noting that the piano is shaped “like the continent of South America on three legs,” depict an inquisitive mind just beginning to recognize its own cleverness.
Stone spent a year in England when she was 10. Some of the book’s Britishisms, such as “I’m not half chuffed,” seem awkwardly inserted, but Stone shows a defter touch with historical details, such as the gray-painted boat Flissy takes to America (evoking the real Queen Elizabeth’s covert journey) and President Roosevelt’s polio. Unfortunately, readers will have to ignore the book’s cover, which features anachronistic his-and-her Converse sneakers and a hint of physical intimacy not present in the book.
Perhaps a more significant quibble is with Stone’s treatment of the story’s major secret — a deception, carried on for many years, whose discovery would likely render any real child on the cusp of puberty disoriented, confused and angry. Flissy takes the revelation with equanimity, even excitement, that’s hard to believe.
Better to concentrate, as young readers no doubt will, on The Romeo and Juliet Code’s depiction of a first, winningly innocent crush.
The Romeo and Juliet Code by Phoebe Stone, Arthur A. Levine Books, 298 pages. $16.99.
The genius of good kids’ authors is that, without whitewashing or pandering, they can turn ugly realities into upbeat fictions. (Think of fairy tales, where abuse and abandonment become steps on the heroic path to happily ever after.) Burlington author Dayna Lorentz pulls off this alchemy in her new middle-grade series for Scholastic, Dogs of the Drowned City, which tells the story of Hurricane Katrina from the viewpoint of the pet dogs left behind.
The adult reader may cringe at this scenario, which mirrors kids’ own fears of abandonment. But young readers will know to expect adventure, humor and surprising resilience in the motley crew of canines that former fighting dog Shep liberates and leads in search of a haven from the storm.
Lorentz lends her protagonist human (and humane) character traits and conflicts: In real life, starving big dogs aren’t so likely to offer their solidarity and protection to snack-size yappers. But Shep and his friends still have enough pungent dogginess to make the novel work as a modern animal fable. Witty and poetic touches — like a pooch’s description of her laser toy as a “Red Dot” (“crafty, oh so crafty ... so tiny it can never be caught, neither by claw nor fang”) — give the novel a whiff of Watership Down. Kids who love dogs and can handle some violent scenes will be itching to get their paws on the next two books in the trilogy.
Dogs of the Drowned City #1: The Storm by Dayna Lorentz, Scholastic Press, 203 pages. $16.99.
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Andrew Hahn: Hi. This is the Kirtan Rabbi. Thank you for such a lovely article, Ken! Just a correction: the…