A dark tale for teens, and drama galore.

By Elizabeth Ward
Sunday, January 20, 2008

SEASON OF ICE By Diane Les Becquets | Bloomsbury. $16.95 (ages 14-up)

A novel in which the main character is named Genesis starts out with a one strike against it, admittedly. But Diane Les Becquets's 17-year-old heroine is made of sterner stuff than her New Age name suggests -- and has bigger things to worry about. She lives in northern Maine with her half-brothers, her stepmother and her father, Mike, a tree "de-limber" for a timber company, and gets her thrills unleashing her 1993 V6 Mustang, "five-speed, 3.8 liter engine," with the local ice-racing club. She'll need that toughness come the snowy November day when her dad, "a meek giant" of a man, fails to return home from Moosehead Lake. Because While Mike's boat is found, his body isn't, and "less than twelve hours later, the lake had begun to freeze, small pallets at first that eventually spread like a growth." There will be no more searching until spring. Thus begins the family's season of ice, a frozen time without closure or insurance money, when rumors and resentments start to fester. Les Becquets distills this nightmare with eloquent restraint.

THE YEAR OF THE RAT By Grace Lin | Little, Brown. $14.99 (ages 8-12)

According to the Chinese calendar, the new year that kicks off Feb. 7 is the Year of the Rat, a wily creature that presides over change and fresh starts. It will prove tough for Pacy, the Taiwanese American grade-schooler who also starred in The Year of the Dog (2005), the first episode of Grace Lin's fictionalized memoir of her childhood in upstate New York. That year was a lucky one for Pacy, who acquired a best friend, Melody, and figured out where her talents lay. The Year of the Rat brings Melody's departure to California, a new Chinese boy at school and bruising encounters with prejudice and failure. Pacy feels as if she has "tasted the bitterness of life." Yet despite the upheavals and lurking disasters, she keeps her pitch-perfect chronicle generally as airy and warming as one of her mom's "soft cotton-white steamed buns." The comical black-and-white line drawings dotting the text help, too.

THE ATTACK OF THE FROZEN WOODCHUCKS By Dan Elish | HarperCollins, $16.99 (ages 8-12)

I have to confess that I'd never heard of Dan Elish until The Attack of the Frozen Woodchucks caught my eye, so it's nice to be able to report that the book lives up to the promise of its title. In fact, it's better: The woodchuck that sets this yarn in motion isn't just frozen; it's 30 feet tall, it comes from outer space, and it's loose in Central Park. Unfortunately, when 10-year-old Jimmy Weathers's father disappears, it becomes clear "that dadnapping by woodchuck was not a crime that the New York City police department took seriously." So it's up to Jimmy to mount an extraterrestrial rescue, with the help of his best friend, chubby William H. Taft V, brainy Janice Claytooth and Jimmy's 2-year-old sister, a scene-stealing female MacGyver in a stroller ("I point! I click! I move!"). Luckily, Elish's earlier titles, Born Too Short and The Worldwide Dessert Contest, sound just as much fun.

A TASTE OF COLORED WATER By Matt Faulkner | Simon & Schuster. $16.99 (ages 4-8)

Faulkner is a whiz at illustrating other people's books, including Judith St. George's Stand Tall, Abe Lincoln, also published this month, and Carol Hagen's entertaining The Night Henry Ford Met Santa (2006). Here, though, his exuberant, cartoony watercolors animate a bit of American history that he has dramatized himself -- albeit through the voice of LuLu, "short for Lucresia," whose friend Abbey has returned from a trip to the big city spouting crazy tales of a water bubbler marked "COLORED." Contemplating the "wondrous possibilities" of this, LuLu and her cousin steal a ride to the city to taste the marvel for themselves. But, of course, it's the early 1960s, it's the South, and the children's rainbow-hued fantasy dissolves into a black-and-white scenario that's at once sobering and scary.

Elizabeth Ward can be reached at warde@washpost.com.

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