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For Young Readers
Life lessons in black and white.

By Elizabeth Ward
Sunday, February 3, 2008

WHEN THE BLACK GIRL SINGS By Bil Wright | Simon & Schuster. $16.99; ages 12-up

It's hard to write believably about music. Katherine Paterson pulled it off in her exhilarating 1985 novel about a West Virginia bluegrass prodigy, Come Sing, Jimmy Jo. Linda Urban did it last year in A Crooked Kind of Perfect, in which an 11-year-old pianist dreams of a baby grand and Carnegie Hall but has to settle for the magic she can summon from the wheezy old organ her dad brings home. Now Bil Wright puts us inside the head of Lahni Schuler, a 14-year-old with a voice she hopes will one day make people think of Mariah, Beyonce and Fantasia wrapped into one.

Lahni actually has a lot more going on in her life than music. The adopted daughter of "two really nice white people," she's the only black girl in her eighth-grade class at a fancy private school. That makes her feel like "a lab rat." But her parents are also spiraling toward divorce, so there goes the family, too -- "a weird family," she admits, but the only one she has. Luckily, her "very righteous second soprano" lands her a spot, and something of a home, in the Good Shepherd Church gospel choir. There she learns the soaring spiritual "His Eye Is on the Sparrow," which gives her the wherewithal not only to deal with her tribulations but also to knock the socks off her rivals in her school's arts competition. There are a few thin characterizations -- the caricature of a church choir diva, the stereotypically shallow white girls -- but the voices of Lahni and her miserable parents ring true. And Wright certainly knows how to make you feel the music.

AFTER TUPAC AND D FOSTER By Jacqueline Woodson | Putnam's. $16.99; ages 12-up

Those who think, as I do, that Jacqueline Woodson's books sometimes muss the fine line between poignant and sentimental -- last year's Feathers being an example -- have a surprise in store for them with this slender, note-perfect novel. Two 11-year-old girls lead a happy but sheltered life in 1990s Queens, New York, reined in hard by their no-nonsense mamas yet dreaming all the while of the wider, wilder world they glimpse in the music of their hero, the sad-eyed rapper Tupac Shakur. A few months before Pac is shot the first time, the window cracks open a bit more with the arrival of the enigmatic D ("Desiree? Your name's Desiree?"), a foster child and a "roamer" and pretty soon their soul mate. "I see Tupac rapping," D says, "and I see he got that same look that I got." But in the summer of 1996, as the girls are turning 13, D's mama shows up to take her away. In September, Pac is shot again, this time fatally. In a flash, our two have lost both their icons of cool, and that glorious window has slammed shut. No matter. The sun still comes up "all crazy orange and gold behind the houses," and it dawns on the narrator, thinking back, just how far they have come toward finding their "Big Purpose" -- "to figure ourselves on out."

ZEN TIES By Jon J Muth | Scholastic. $17.99 (ages 4-8)

Muth won a Caldecott Honor in 2006 -- and should have won the medal -- for Zen Shorts, the delightful picture book in which he introduced the giant panda-philosopher Stillwater. (The "shorts" of the title refers to both Stillwater's boxers and the Zen parables he uses to teach gentle life lessons to siblings Karl, Michael and Addie.) Now Stillwater and the kids return in another pun-happy romp, joined this time by the big panda's mini-me nephew, Koo. Little Koo likes to speak in haiku, which naturally prompts Stillwater to greet him at the train station with a gracious "Hi, Koo." And look for those "Zen ties" not just in the pandas' neckwear but in the kindness Stillwater teaches the children to show toward a grouchy old neighbor. But as in Zen Shorts, it's Muth's watercolors that really make this book. Rich with summery light, airy as the balloons that float through the pages, they're also full of the deadpan humor that pandas somehow just radiate. Check out, in particular, Stillwater and Koo's tai chi routine on the endpapers.

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

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