For Young Readers

Teens tried by war, murder and prep school.

By Mary Quattlebaum
Sunday, November 30, 2008

CHAINS Seeds of America By Laurie Halse Anderson Simon & Schuster. $16.99. (ages 10 and up)

In the first months of the Revolutionary War, Isabel, an orphaned slave in New York City, feels "chained between two nations." She spies on her cruel Loyalist masters for the American cause, but the patriots refuse to intervene when she is beaten and branded for running away. Though "bees built a hive of sadness" in her soul, Isabel is determined to escape and rescue her sister, who is enslaved in South Carolina. But how can she elude her vigilant mistress?

As she did so well with Fever 1793, Laurie Halse Anderson vividly captures a chaotic historical time. Shortlisted for this year's National Book Award, Chains is a nuanced portrayal of a nation and a girl bound for freedom.

THE DOOR OF NO RETURN By Sarah Mussi McElderry. $17.99. (ages 12 and up)

Lost African gold, royal ancestry, a 300-year-old diary: Zac Baxter has always dismissed his grandfather's stories. After all, they live in 21st-century England. But then Pops is murdered, their home searched, and Zac framed for a crime he didn't commit. His "rehabilitation" requires community service in Ghana at an old slave-trading fort. Zac soon realizes that powerful enemies have orchestrated the trip in hopes that he will lead them to the treasure his grandfather described. Desperate to protect himself, the gold and a dimly understood family secret, Zac must penetrate a rain forest, outsmart a stalking leopard, navigate a river full of crocodiles and deal with a wily young leper.

More than action, though, fuels this compelling debut novel. Zac is a wry, engaging protagonist. While dining on coconuts, he fantasizes about Big Macs and milkshakes, and he frequently owns up to a fear that "can swallow you at any time." Zac's story is intercut with excerpts from the old diary of a captured African prince who describes his painful passage through the Door of No Return to the British slave ships waiting beyond it. Zac must enter the same portal to uncover long-buried truths.

THE DISREPUTABLE HISTORY OF FRANKIE LANDAU-BANKS By E. Lockhart Hyperion. $16.99. (ages 12 and up)

Frances ("Frankie") Landau-Banks takes on the next generation of the old boys network in this smart, snappy novel, another National Book Award finalist. Frustrated to find herself marginalized as "cute" and "adorable" at the prestigious prep school where she is a sophomore, Frankie infiltrates the rather disorganized all-male secret society to which her boyfriend belongs. Her anonymous emails soon have the boys playing pranks that, while funny, also question the school's traditions and prescribed gender roles. When her identity is discovered, Frankie must contend with the fallout (possible expulsion from school, lost friendships, angry parents) that comes with shaking up the status quo. But as one abashed senior confesses to her: "I significantly underestimated you. I don't actually think it is possible to overestimate you.."

THE HUNGER GAMES By Suzanne Collins Scholastic. $17.99. (ages 12 and up)

To punish rebellious citizens, the government of a future dystopia strikes at their children. Selected by lottery, 24 young people must participate each year in a televised survival game. Similar to Roman gladiators, they enter a large outdoor arena -- and must hide, hunt and fight until one victor emerges.

The Hunger Games focuses on one character's struggle to maintain her humanity under such brutal conditions. When her younger sister is chosen, Katniss Everdeen, a skilled hunter, takes her place. But when Katniss publicly mourns the death of a fellow contestant and bonds with another to trick the government, she angers the powers that be. She must continue to play her part carefully or jeopardize her life and those of her loved ones. This gripping tale explores ever-timely topics -- violence-as-entertainment and rule-by-intimidation -- and through Katniss holds out the possibility of change.

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

© 2008 The Washington Post Company