Bombs, bonobos and a bird-legged witch figure prominently in this year’s finalists for the National Book Award for young people’s literature, which will be announced on Nov. 14.
Absent-minded physicists emerge as heroes and genial chemists as spies in Bomb: The Race to Build — and Steal — the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon (Roaring Brook, $19.99, age 10 and up). The stakes are high, indeed, in this fast-paced thriller that happens to be fascinatingly true. Who will be the first to create the atomic bomb — and determine the course of World War II? Steve Sheinkin exposes mishaps, misdeeds and espionage as the United States, Germany and the Soviet Union vie desperately to make and snitch key discoveries. He brings to intriguing life the historical figures who can seem so remote to modern kids. Witness the brilliant, socially awkward Robert Oppenheimer, who as a child was once painted green by bullies, but eventually, as the scientific head of the secret Manhattan Project, was able to help vanquish Hitler and rescue fellow Jews in Nazi Germany.
The international arena is also the setting for Endangered (Scholastic, $17.99, age 12 and up), a contemporary novel that begins on a bonobo sanctuary in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. There, Sophie, the 14-year-old daughter of the sanctuary’s owner, bonds with a bonobo orphan named Otto. When the sanctuary is attacked, she flees with him into the surrounding jungle, and together they forage for food, dodge militants and try to survive. Eliot Schrefer grounds this taut, heart-wrenching tale in details gleaned from his work on a similar sanctuary and paints vivid portraits of intelligent, peaceful primates in a land where, on average, “twelve hundred Congolese had been killed every day since 1998.”
Danger threatens the fantasy city of Zombay in Goblin Secrets (McElderry, $16.99, ages 8-12), where humans and automatons coexist beside a great river. For years, Rownie, almost 10, and his older brother, Rowan, have dwelled with a clever, chicken-legged witch. When Rowan disappears, Rownie runs away from his vindictive benefactor and searches for his brother by joining a traveling troupe of performing goblins. This plunges the boy into a misty, mysterious world of fugitive actors, magical masks and rising floodwaters. In a bow to the goblins’ profession, William Alexander organizes his atmospheric first novel into acts and scenes, rather than chapters, and he couches it in the beautifully elliptical language of the old fairy tales.
For Arn Chorn-Pond, the narrator of Never Fall Down (Balzer+Bray, $17.99, age 14 and up), music in his Cambodian town is “like air, always there.” He starts his story as a mischievous 11-year-old in 1975, just before Khmer Rouge forces sweep in, herd the townsfolk into the countryside and force them to farm with scant food and shelter. With haunting music of his own, Arn relays the horrors that follow — the loss of his family, his duties as a child soldier — in the staccato rhythms and sentence fragments of a non-native speaker of English. To authentically convey the boy’s experience, former journalist Patricia McCormick interviewed Arn, now grown and the founder of Cambodian Living Arts, and fellow survivors over a two-year period. This historical novel is every bit as powerful as McCormick’s “Sold,” a fictional account of human trafficking and an NBA finalist in 2006. Though harrowing, Arn’s chronicle also hits the high notes of his escape to Thailand, his adoption by an American family and his determination to help Cambodia recover the culture all but destroyed by the radical communist group.
A current of tender, believable sadness flows through Out of Reach (Simon Pulse, $16.99, age 14 and up), the first novel by Carrie Arcos. It opens with what 16-year-old Rachel Stevens claims is a universal truth: “Everyone lies.” When her beloved older brother, Micah, vanishes, though, Rachel must confront not only his lies about his crystal meth addiction but her own in covering for him. As she and Micah’s best friend, Tyler, hunt for him in the seedy beach town where he was last seen, Rachel finds “bits and pieces” of her lost brother in the homeless teens and drug users she questions, in small, joyful memories of their shared childhood, and in the hopeful lift of her heart every time she glimpses “a guy with brown hair and tattoos.” This is a thought-provoking novel of choices and their effect on who we become.
Quattlebaum is a children’s author and regular reviewer for The Washington Post. She teaches at Vermont College’s MFA Program in Writing for Children and Young Adults.