For Young Readers

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Other Times, Other Places

Who reads as single-mindedly as a child? Or experiences places so intensely? Not us adults, for sure, distracted as we are by what Susan Cooper calls in her riveting new novel simply "the life of everyday." Victory (Margaret K. McElderry, $16.95; ages 9-12) celebrates Cooper's hero, Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson, the one-armed victor of Trafalgar. But it also conveys that childlike feeling of being "so deep in the world of a book" that one has "trouble coming back," and the related sensation, in the presence of certain historic places and artifacts, of being transported into the past.

Molly, an 11-year-old Londoner, is one of those born readers, but she's also out of sorts, heart-sore and homesick as the novel opens in August 2006. Her widowed mother has married a Yankee and brought her little family to Connecticut. The sea is a constant backdrop: Molly's father drowned in a plane crash off the coast of Spain; her new dad and stepbrother are keen sailors. But that hardly prepares Molly for what happens after she buys an old copy of Robert Southey's Life of Nelson on an outing to Mystic Seaport. After reading the book, she discovers hidden inside it a tattered bit of the flag from Nelson's ship HMS Victory. And through the haze of Long Island Sound, she hears "a distant boom, like the sound of a massive gun" and briefly sees "the outline of a great sailing ship, three-masted, square-rigged, with a dim cloud of smoke drifting away from its side."

You have to love a book that acknowledges there are 11-year-olds out there capable of being spellbound by Southey's Life of Nelson . You also have to admire an author with the confidence to cut away from an electrifying plot line after just one chapter. From modern-day Connecticut, we time-warp back two centuries to "the world of the Royal Navy," specifically the "dark, stuffy, tilting world" of the Victory itself, where Sam Robbins, also 11, finds himself after being press-ganged into the king's service. It's 1803, at the height of the Napoleonic wars.

From then on, Molly's and Sam's stories alternate, hers written in the present tense, his cast as a memoir. Expertly paced, the parallel narratives build to an enthralling double climax. For Sam, who has graduated from galley hand to powder monkey, it's the great sea battle of Trafalgar. For troubled Molly, it's a trip home to England and a visit to the Victory at Portsmouth, where she learns that there may be good reasons for her strange connection to a long-dead ship's boy and that unsettling sense of "another world . . . leaking into her own." (Hint: Remember where Molly's father's plane went down?)

Cooper, a Newbery medalist, has interwoven history and fantasy before to bring her idols to life for kids: Merlin in The Dark Is Rising sequence, Shakespeare in King of Shadows . But nowhere, I think, has she done it more hauntingly or gracefully than in this loving tribute to Nelson, her native England, her adopted New England, the sea, ships and books.

Four more new novels capable of transporting readers to the far away and the long ago:

House of the Red Fish , by Graham Salisbury (Wendy Lamb, $16.95; ages 12-up). Hawaii, 1943, through the eyes of Tomi Nakaji, the young Japanese-American hero of Salisbury's much-loved novel of Pearl Harbor, Under the Blood-Red Sun .

Blood on the River , by Elisa Carbone (Viking, $16.99; ages 10-up). As the subtitle renders it, "James Town 1607" -- as experienced by an 11-year-old London urchin who has been assigned to sail to Virginia as Capt. John Smith's page.

A True and Faithful Narrative , by Katherine Sturtevant (Farrar Straus Giroux, $17; ages 12-up). Seventeenth-century London, where 16-year-old Meg, the returning heroine of At the Sign of the Star , learns it's tough to be a young woman with literary ambitions.

Black Duck , by Janet Taylor Lisle (Sleuth/Philomel, $15.99; ages 10-up). Rhode Island in 1929: Prohibition, rum-running, mobs, "dark nights, sudden lights" and a mysterious corpse washed up on the beach. "There are times when history seems so close," Lisle notes in an afterword, "you can almost reach out and touch it."

-- Elizabeth Ward


© 2006 The Washington Post Company