By Libba Bray
Scholastic. $18.99. Ages 13-18
Take one beauty pageant, add pirates and piranhas, stir in a top-secret military operation, and you’ve got a shake-it-up, satirical novel by Printz winner Libba Bray. When the Miss Teen Dreamplane crashes, the 14survivors find themselves on a jungle island, a “thrumming heartbeat of danger wrapped in a muscular green.” My stars! (as Miss Texas would say). But the girls gather their courage and remaining beauty products and are soon pumicing sticks into fishing spears and engineering weapons from stilettos and nail polish. The novel’s shifting points of view allow insight into characters eager to buck stereotypes of beauty, race and female disposition, such as the “sassy black” sidekick and the plucky disabled girl. But will teamwork and friendship prevail even as frat-boy buccaneers loom on the horizon and secret operatives (and a giant snake) close in? The snappy dialogue, plot surprises and strut-their-stuff characters lend a playful but no less profound tone to Bray’s theme of female empowerment.
By Elissa Brent Weissman
Atheneum. $15.99. Ages 8-12
Gabe, 10, can hardly wait to dive into the sonnets, syllogisms and scavenger hunts at the Summer Center for Gifted Enrichment, a sleepaway camp for bright kids. That is, until he discovers that his soon-to-be stepbrother, Zack, scorns such things as nerdy. With his cellphone, surfboard and poor spelling, Zack seems the epitome of cool, and bespectacled Gabe yearns for a similar sangfroid. Gabe’s path to geeky self-acceptance is filled with quirky adventure. There’s a UFO sighting, a stealth kayak mission and a clandestine lice-breeding lab, along with bunkmates who recite the digits of pi (for fun!) and tape pictures of Beethoven to their cabin walls. Fans of “The Big Bang Theory” may recognize in Gabe and his smart, funny friends the youthful counterparts of the zany brainiacs on that popular TV show.
By Jeanne Birdsall
Knopf. $16.99. Ages 8-12
A Maine vacation proves anything but restful for Skye, 12, in the third novel about the lively Penderwick girls and their friend Jeffrey. Changing family dynamics bring out new facets of the sisters’ personalities and freshen the plot. With Dad and oldest sister Rosalind away, prickly Skye worries about her ability to care for Jane, 11, Batty, 5, and their exuberant pet, Hound. When Aunt Clairesprains her ankle, Skye marshals the others to cook and clean. But her patience is tried by Jane’s crush on a silly (in Skye’s opinion) young skateboarder and Batty and Jeffrey’s growing fondness for the piano (and its adult owner) next door. After stumbling upon a secret that affects Jeffrey, Skye wonders how she can ever keep her loved ones safe from the “perilous world of grown-ups.” This jolly tale of sibling support and shenanigans ranks with the classics of family life — “Little Women,” “Five Little Peppers and How They Grew” — and with Hilary McKay’s witty contemporaryCasson Family series.
Mary Quattlebaum teaches in the Vermont College MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Her most recent children’s book is “Pirate vs. Pirate.”