For Young Readers

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Sunday, November 26, 2006

This fall sees a flurry of terrific novels for kids anywhere from 7 to 12. Some standouts:

The White Elephant, by Sid Fleischman (Greenwillow, $15.99). Run-Run is a young Thai mahout, or elephant boy, who has it all: no apparent parents, a busy outdoor life and a beloved, elderly beast of his own named Walking Mountain. But on a day "hot as an oven with its doors flung open," Run-Run offends a local prince and is punished with the gift of a new elephant, "white as a cloud." Punished with a gift? Indeed. A white elephant is sacred and must be cosseted "like a peacock in a cage," never doing a lick of work. A gift like that can ruin a mahout. Happily, Run-Run is a born animal whisperer, and he conspires with his eager new charge and wise Walking Mountain to outwit the prince and avert the curse. Fleischman, a Newbery medalist, excels in this funny, heart-warming tale of old Siam, every sentence as sharp as an elephant prod.

The Mailbox, by Audrey Shafer (Delacorte, $15.95). Gable Culligan Pace, "barely twelve," is in a pickle. After years spent bouncing among foster homes, he had ended up with his Uncle Vernon, a reclusive Vietnam vet living near Roanoke, Va., and the two misfits had forged a bond. But now Gabe has come home from school to find Vernon flat on his back, cold, dead. What to do? Being a kid, he does nothing -- until he gets home from school the next day to find the body gone ("prosthesis and all"). In its place are a sandwich and a note: "I have a secret. Do not be afraid." Two days later, to his joy, there's a dog, too. A dialogue ensues, via mailbox notes. From this knockout opening, first-time novelist Audrey Shafer builds a story finely balanced between mystery -- who is Gabe's benefactor? -- and meditation -- on loneliness, love and what a boy really needs to make a life.

Grandfather's Dance, by Patricia MacLachlan (HarperCollins, $14.99). Fans of the sequence that began in 1985 with Sarah, Plain and Tall mustn't miss this fifth and final title, in which the Witting family's life on the prairie rolls on, with Anna's wedding, and marks an ending, with a funeral. The unbroken-circle theme also plays out in the relationship between the book's youngest and oldest characters, toddler Jack and Grandfather, a.k.a. "little Boppa and big Boppa." As in the fourth book, Cassie, now a fourth-grader, narrates. As in the entire series, the best things are the humor and the language. Grandfather's witticisms at the expense of the visiting "ship of aunts," faithfully parroted by Jack, are especially memorable, but so are MacLachlan's exquisite, spare sentences, little daubs of color and sound that merge to suggest a world. "Mama was sewing, the light of the lamp falling across a white dress." "The aunts wore hats." "I ran out of the barn and into the sunlight." "The camera shutter clicked. 'That's it,' called Joshua. 'The end.' " And a highly satisfying end it is, too.

Frozen Billy, by Anne Fine (Farrar Straus Giroux, $16). Fine, the British author of Alias Madame Doubtfire, Flour Babies and other startlingly original novels, is noted for the fearlessness with which she broaches such dark themes as family dysfunction and mental disturbance. Here she transports young readers to Edwardian England, where Clarrie, the narrator, and her brother, Will, have been left in the care of their uncle, an alcoholic music-hall ventriloquist. "Frozen Billy" is Uncle Len's dummy partner, and he's downright creepy, especially after Will joins the act in an effort to eke out the trio's earnings. To Clarrie, it begins to seem as if she is in a fight for Will's soul. "Each night," she whispers to the wooden doll, "you drip more poison into my brother's life. . . . But don't think you'll win." Is that a zinger of a plot, or what?

The Cricket Winter, by Felice Holman (Eerdmans, $15). "A boy of nine is enormously wise and has a great deal to tell, if anyone at all would listen," Holman observes in this 1967 favorite, reissued with engaging new pencil drawings by Robyn Thomas. Yet so often, nobody does. That's why small boys should particularly relish the tale of the sympathetic relationship that unfolds -- via Morse code, no less -- between clever, underappreciated Simms and a lovelorn cricket, "torn with sadness," who lives beneath his bedroom floorboards.

-- Elizabeth Ward (warde@washpost.com)


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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