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For Young Readers: Summertime Trips -- Fantastical and Real

Sunday, June 14, 2009

MELONHEAD By Katy Kelly, Illustrated by Gillian Johnson Delacorte. $12.99, ages 7-9

How do you go about telling your mom there's a snake hiding in the kitchen and a mouse loose in the living room, especially when you haven't yet broken the news that you're co-owner of both reptile and rodent? Meet Adam Melon, aka Melonhead, whose escapade in a magnolia tree requires rescue by both a cherrypicker and the Jaws of Life; who likes mud-surfing and roof-running; who wins the Homework of the Week Award for his essay entitled "My Personal Experience with Head Lice"; who knows how to make a marshmallow mustache out of a Sno-Ball; and whose two most frequently used words are, hands down, "I'm sorry." What's currently causing him the most stress, however, is Challenge America!, a contest to create "Reinventions" from recycled materials. Will he and his best friend, Sam, succeed in coming up with a winning idea? Will his pals Lucy Rose and Jonique invent something even more spectacular? And why is Ashley the Annoying being so secretive? Formerly a sidekick (in Kelly's popular Lucy Rose series) and now a star in his own right, Melonhead will leave readers laughing and longing for more.

-- Kristi Jemtegaard

BETTINA VALENTINO AND THE PICASSO CLUB By Niki Daly, Farrar Straus Giroux. $15.95, ages 7-9

Niki Daly's first foray into the field of chapter books is filled with the same arch humor and offhand illustrations as his picture books, with a few detours into mildly scatological territory (dog poop plays a significant role in more than one scene). Fifth-grader Bettina Valentino adores art but hates her art class at Bayside Preparatory School, where her teacher, Miss Pyle, believes in repeat patterns, clean brushes and pastel colors. Exit Miss Pyle, enter Mr. Peppard (quickly nicknamed Mr. Popart) who wears an evening suit jacket with checked golf shorts, believes that shoes interfere with earth-energy, and introduces everything from cave art to cubism, much to the delight of the elementary artistes and the dismay of some of the stuffier parents. An art competition, a student club (organized by Bettina), a parental complaint and a highly satisfactory resolution round out this light-hearted introduction to eccentricity, activism and art appreciation. Kids will even learn a smidgen about art history and perhaps be inspired to create something artistic of their own.

-- Kristi Jemtegaard

ALONG FOR THE RIDE By Sarah Dessen, Viking. $19.99, ages 13 and up

Want a change from fictional neckbiters and backbiters? Welcome Auden West, a studious good girl about to be sun-kissed. Trapped for years in the dark realm of her parents' bickering marriage and eventual divorce, Auden yearns for summer light. She flees her critical professor mom for the beach home of her dad and his new wife and baby. The problem: She has no idea how to have fun. The poor girl has never bowled, ridden a bike, gorged on snack food or just hung out and chatted. She gets to know her exuberant stepmother, newborn sister and three local girls -- all of whom challenge her aloofness. And Auden meets Eli, the young manager of the bike shop. Mired in grief and guilt, he's forgotten how to have fun. Together, tentatively, they explore shared interests. As Auden grows, she begins to leave behind her brilliant, selfish parents and to pedal slowly but steadily into her own life.

Confiding and dry-witted, Auden's voice is like listening to your best bud while splitting a carton of Haagen-Dazs. Author Sarah Dessen beautifully captures that sense of summer as a golden threshold between past regrets and future unknowns, a time that shimmers with the sweet promise of now.

-- Mary Quattlebaum

THE TWILIGHT PRISONER By Katherine Marsh, Disney Hyperion. $17.99, ages 10 and up

Greek myth meets modern high school in this gripping sequel to the Edgar Award-winning "The Night Tourist." Jack Perdu can still fly, see ghosts and pass for dead in the dim underworld he visits below New York City. This time, though, he hopes to impress Cora, his secret crush, by taking her with him. Smooth move, Jack. The two soon find themselves hunted by Cerberus, the three-headed guard dog, blackmailed by a media mogul and helped and sometimes hindered in their escape by a prickly girl ghost. Cora is even denied her favorite gum lest she be doomed forever to the shadow world like Proserpina, the pomegranate-seed-eating goddess. Ghostly cameos provide mordant fun and glimpses of lesser-known historical figures. Jack and Cora talk poetry with W.H. Auden, disrupt a manners seminar by Emily Post and dance the Lindy Hop with its creator, George "Shorty" Snowden. The allusions to ancient gods may draw fans of Rick Riordan's popular series "Percy Jackson and the Olympians." However, the dark humor and poignant exchanges between the dead and living put this novel closer in tone and sensibility to "The Graveyard Book," by Neil Gaiman. Like that Newbery winner, "The Twilight Prisoner" will keep kids reading late into the balmy nights ahead.

-- Mary Quattlebaum

REDWOODS By Jason Chin, Roaring Brook. $16.95, ages 8 -12

Mixing the true and the truly wild, Jason Chin offers up engaging facts about the towering trees of California and Oregon along with bright, captivating illustrations that pluck a kid out of New York City and plunge him into the redwood forest. The book opens with a lone preteen waiting for the F train in Manhattan. He finds a book that looks uncannily like the one he's in, and while absorbed in it, he's transported not to Brooklyn but to the land of the Sequoia sempervirens. The boy is suitably awestruck as he walks among giants and then, even better, climbs one, with the aid of a rope and a bow and arrow that suddenly appear before him. As he pulls himself up, he notices the plants and trees growing on redwoods and the animals living there, including some who've never seen the ground. At book's end, after height comparisons to skyscrapers somehow bring him back to the city, a girl finds the book, and the next adventure begins.

-- Abby McGanney Nolan

PHARAOH'S BOAT By David Weitzman, Houghton Mifflin. $18, ages 8 -12

A compelling dip into Egyptology, "Pharaoh's Boat" contains two stories: one about a massive ship that was built 4,600 years ago for a dead pharaoh and the other about the painstaking work involved in reconstructing this ship in the 20th century -- "the oldest, largest and most complete" example of its kind in the world, in the words of author-illustrator David Weitzman. Although it might have been better to have had the second story first, Weitzman's clear explanations and wonderfully precise illustrations make up for any mysteries solved prematurely. Two pages fold out of one spread so that readers can appreciate the length and beauty of the boat, which ancient shipwrights built and then took apart, carefully storing the 1,224 pieces so that the pharaoh could reassemble it in the afterlife. He doesn't seem to have bothered, but Weitzman shows how a persistent Egyptian preservationist figured out how to do it by apprenticing himself to Nile boat builders and constructing scale models until he got it right, full-size.

-- Abby McGanney Nolan

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