A roundup of five novels for children

March 18, 2011

SMALL PERSONS WITH WINGS

By Ellen Booraem

Dial. $16.99, ages 10-14

Taunted by classmates for an alleged fairy sighting, Mellie Turpin, 13, has a chance to ditch her dorky reputation when her parents inherit a rickety inn in another town. But — surprise! — her new home brims with hundreds of “Small Persons with Wings,” who demand her help in breaking a pact that curbs their natural magic. What’s a mortal to do? Familiar tropes get fresh, funny play in this sprightly tale. On the way to a delightful “ever after,” Mellie is turned into a giant frog, the boy next door proves to be a tech-savvy Prince Charming, and sometimes even fairies prefer an electric, bread-crisping “toadster” to their own ethereal magic.

YOU KILLED WESLEY PAYNE

By Sean Beaudoin

Little, Brown. $16.99, ages 12 and up

Cliques rule the school at Salt River High, as teen private-eye Dalton Rev discovers when investigating the murder of nice-guy Wesley Payne. Wesley kept everything in the school balanced, but without him the Balls, Pinker Caskets, Euclidians and Sis Boom Bahs (also known, respectively, as jocks, rockers, brainiacs and cheerleaders) vie for power. In this clever spoof of the detective genre, Dalton may appear not so much hard-boiled as hilariously scrambled as he consults his favorite pulp novels for tips. He is helped and hindered by a siren in thigh-high boots and a pudgy sidekick named Mole. Though his cute client (also Wesley’s sister) tempts him to drop the “tough-guy posturing,” Dalton sticks with the case through all its plot-twisty turns, right to the heart-jolting end.

FIVE FLAVORS OF DUMB

By Antony John

Dial. $16.99, ages 12 and up

Piper may be deaf, but she knows what Dumb needs: a manager who can handle the seething members of a Seattle high school band with that name. Piper gets the job — a boon because she needs something, too: her cut of the money from Dumb’s gigs to help pay for college next year. This smart, lively novel captures the downs and ups of young rock and rollers — a recording session gone tunelessly wrong, the animal energy of a concert — and charts Piper’s deepening friendship with the band’s geeky-cool drummer, Ed Chen. Piper deflects the prejudice of others with sly humor but must confront her own against lip-pierced Tash and pretty Kallie, the two girl guitarists. When the bombastic front man causes trouble, Piper takes charge, rocking this spirited coming-of-age story to a surprising close.

BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY

By Ruta Sepetys

Philomel. $17.99, ages 12 and up.

Wrenched from comfortable homes, Lina Vilkas, 15, and her mother, younger brother and a few neighbors on “the list” are transported to a barren, frozen land. Lina, a talented artist, chronicles their suffering on scraps of paper and cloth and smuggles the notes out . . . but help never comes. Her father has been imprisoned, and the larger world busies itself with a distant war.

Though this may sound like the latest dystopian novel, Lina’s story actually takes place in 1941, against the backdrop of Joseph Stalin’s “cleansing” of the Baltic States. To evoke the horrors and hope of this time in Siberia, author Ruta Sepetys interviewed her Lithuanian relatives and many other deportees. Her prose is restrained and powerful, as unadorned as the landscape in which her characters struggle to survive. In this way, the occasional metaphors and descriptions shine more brightly, especially those involving a kind boy who, at various times, steals food from the guards for the sick, gives Lina a birthday gift and softly kisses her. Few books are beautifully written, fewer still are important; this novel is both.

HURRICANE DANCERS

By Margarita Engle

Henry Holt. $16.99, ages 12 and up

Three main characters tell intertwined stories in this skillfully structured novel-in-poems about real-life pirates of the Caribbean. The effect: different versions of historical events rather than one fixed through a particular viewpoint as “the truth.” The book opens compellingly in 1510, with Quebrado, an orphan of mixed Indian and Spanish blood, trapped on the pirate ship of brutal Bernardino de Talavera. Also on board as a wounded hostage is the cruel Spanish conquistador, Alonso de Ojeda, a man haunted by feverish visions of the Indians he killed and enslaved. When a hurricane casts them into the sea, each comes to the same island with a different attitude and skills. Quebrado recognizes his former home, with its “moist soil” and “pineapples . . . like golden sunlight.” But Talavera and Ojeda consider the place hostile and swampy. When the three meet again, the boy, now the one with power, must decide whether to help or harm them. Although Quebrado is fictitious, the others are historical figures, and a note in the back explains their actual fates.

Mary Quattlebaum contributes regularly to Book World and teaches in the Vermont College MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Her most recent children’s book, “Pirate vs. Pirate,” is out this month.

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