For Young Readers

By Mary Quattlebaum
Sunday, January 18, 2009

THE KIND OF FRIENDS WE USED TO BE By Frances O'Roark Dowell Atheneum. $16.99. (ages 8-12)

Can a forever friendship survive middle school? In seventh grade, "it matters more, liking the same things," reflects Kate. She wants to stride the halls in thick black boots, play the guitar and write songs. Long-time best bud, Marylin, is now into cute flats, lip gloss and cheerleading. Growing up is all about change, but it hurts to leave behind (and be left by) an old friend.

This touching sequel to The Secret Language of Girls alternates perspectives between Kate and Marylin. This allows for a nuanced portrait of an evolving friendship rather than the more usual literary pitting of creative individual against shallow cheerleader (or jock, in the case of boys). By building sympathy for both characters, Frances O'Roark Dowell creates an emotionally complex story of girls going their separate ways but managing to reconnect, sometimes in a funny and poignant fashion. Their example will resonate with, and perhaps comfort, readers dealing with similar issues.

HEART OF A SHEPHERD By Rosanne Parry Random House. $15.99. (ages 8-12)

When his father is deployed to Iraq, 11-year-old Brother holds tight to his parting words: "A man's life is not so much about courage. You just have to keep going." So Brother does his best to "keep going" during Dad's 14-month absence. He helps his grandparents on the family ranch, raises orphaned lambs and delivers a calf. When a prairie fire threatens their home, the boy not only braves the blaze to rescue stranded sheep but bears loss and starts to rebuild.

Does Brother sound too good to be true? His spunk, occasional self-doubts and cowpoke skills make him a believable, engaging character, as do his clear-eyed observations on schoolmates, church and his chess-playing Grandpa. Brother also explores spiritual issues with a depth and honesty seldom seen in contemporary children's literature. Rosanne Parry's first novel is something to celebrate: a big-themed book with a big-hearted boy at the center.

FLYGIRL By Sherri L. Smith Putnam. $16.99. (ages 12 and up)

Like Brother, Ida Mae Jones must define courage for herself. When her older brother enlists during World War II, Ida Mae yearns to do more than just hoard sugar, clean houses and work on her family's strawberry farm. Her father, a crop duster with his own plane, had taught her to fly before he died, and she decides to join the newly formed WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots). But with the country and the military so segregated, Ida Mae must take a big risk and pass for white -- a path her light-skinned father had rejected in the New Orleans of his youth.

Careful research informs this story of a young woman struggling against racism and sexism to follow her dreams. Author Sherri Smith takes us into the cockpit of a PT-19A trainer, past the "Whites Only" signs in stores and on target-towing duty in the sky. Even as she meets new challenges and makes new friends, Ida Mae hopes one day to merge her WASP and "colored girl" identities. A dynamic, heartfelt novel.

TEN THINGS I HATE ABOUT ME By Randa Abdel-Fattah Orchard. $16.99. (ages 12 and up)

Wanting to fit in at her Australian high school, Jamilah, 16, hides behind dyed blonde hair, blue contact lenses and the name Jamie. And she never talks about her boisterous Lebanese Muslim family or her love of playing the darabuka, an Arabic drum. As shy Jamie, Jamilah realizes she doesn't "make much of an impact," but she feels comfortable exposing her vibrant personality only at home and in e-mails to a boy known as John, who encourages her to drop the disguise. Though the be-yourself message can be rather relentless, readers will enjoy Jamilah's take on hijabs, high school and her strict, taxi-driving, ultimately endearing father.

Mary Quattlebaum is a children's author who contributes frequently to Book World.

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