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For Young Readers: Books That Spook

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By Mary Quattlebaum
Sunday, October 19, 2008

THE 39 CLUES The Maze of Bones By Rick Riordan | Scholastic, $12.99; ages 8 to 12

These days publishers aim to reach kids where they are, whether it's reading, gaming or interacting with a dedicated website. For instance, last month Scholastic simultaneously released the first title in a 10-book series along with an online game (at www.the39clues.com), collectible cards and a contest with prizes. The test for such books, of course, will be whether they can stand on their own.

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The Maze of Bones opens quickly: On her deathbed, Grace Cahill changes her will to challenge the members of her influential family to a global hunt for 39 clues to a long-held secret -- and untold power. Dan, 11, and his bookish sister, Amy, 14, soon find themselves the target of kinfolk who will stop at nothing to win. With their multilingual au pair, the orphaned siblings travel from Boston to Philadelphia to Paris in search of clues hidden in documents penned by Benjamin Franklin, one of their ancestors.

Though the villainous relatives are rather flat, the historical tidbits and fast-moving plot will engage readers and whet interest in the second book, available in December.

DRAGON ROAD Golden Mountain Chronicles: 1939 By Laurence Yep | HarperCollins, $16.99; ages 10 to 13

Jobless in Depression-era Chinatown, Cal "Flash" Chin and his best buddy, Barney Young, parlay their basketball talents into spots on a professional Chinese American team. Setting out from San Francisco in an old jalopy, the Dragons begin a grueling schedule of games in high school gyms and halls across California and other parts of the West. They contend with racist taunts, bad water (always drink hot tea, Barney's grandfather had warned), limited cash, and a coach and manager at odds with one another. They also meet with unexpected support along the way and learn some fancy moves from the legendary Harlem Globetrotters. Laurence Yep skillfully conveys the game's fast-paced energy as well as details of the times: boarded-up stores and "hangdog" Okies in "rusty rattletraps." Inspired by the Hong Wah Kues, a real Chinese American team, this novel makes a compelling addition to Yep's award-winning multigenerational saga, the Golden Mountain Chronicles.

WHITE SANDS, RED MENACE By Ellen Klages | Viking, $16.99; ages 10 and up

The atomic bomb that ends World War II ushers in new worries for 12-year-old Suze Gordon and her friend Dewey Kerrigan. In this sequel to the acclaimed The Green Glass Sea, the girls are settling into the rocket-testing town of Alamogordo, N.M. Suze's parents, who both worked on the bomb, now seem to be following divergent paths. Her mother wants to educate the public about bomb-related dangers, and her father throws himself into the country's nascent space program. As the parents bicker during a long, hot year, the girls collaborate on a creative project that reflects Suze's artistry and Dewey's passion for engineering. Though the sudden appearance of Dewey's long-absent mother feels a bit contrived, this carefully researched novel deserves high marks for tackling a historical period little explored in fiction for young people. Ellen Klages vividly captures the mood of a jittery nation and of girls beginning to question the gender- and race-bound rules that mandate Home Ec for females, forbid them to take classes in mechanical drawing and divide a border town along racial lines.

THE GRAVEYARD BOOK By Neil Gaiman | Illustrated by Dave McKean HarperCollins, $17.99; ages 10 and up

Fans of Neil Gaiman's spooky Coraline will thrill to this tale of a boy raised by ghosts. Barely escaping being murdered with his family, Nobody "Bod" Owens finds sanctuary in a graveyard. He soon learns, with the help of its spectral inhabitants, how to fade, sleep in a tomb, avoid ghoul gates and eat purple-red stew prepared by a werewolf. Meanwhile, Bod's assailant, known only as "the man Jack," continues to pursue him. Suspense builds as the boy struggles to discover Jack's motive and defeat his plan. The book's power lies in Gaiman's ability to bring to quirky life (pun intended) the graveyard's many denizens, including a protective vampire and a feisty medieval witch. Like a bite of dark Halloween chocolate, this novel proves rich, bittersweet and very satisfying.

Children's author Mary Quattlebaum teaches classes in writing for children, blogs on nature-themed kids' books for the National Wildlife Federation and regularly reviews for Book World.


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