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CHILDREN'S BOOKS

Kids in space and other exotic places: Four novels for young readers

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By MARY QUATTLEBAUM
Sunday, March 21, 2010

COSMIC

By Frank Cottrell Boyce

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Walden Pond. $16.99, ages 8-12

How did Liam Digby end up in deep space instead of on the class field trip? He explains everything in this hilariously inventive novel, in which a Chinese mogul, a theme-park rocket, a former astronaut and several towns called Waterloo figure prominently. Thanks to manly stubble and a seven-inch growth spurt, Liam, 12, can pass for 30. Pretending to be a dad, he and faux daughter Florida Kirby, a fellow classmate, join three other (real) father-child teams to test the ultimate thrill ride, a trip into space. Along the way, Liam wrestles with what it means to be "dadly": playing golf, filling out forms, bragging about your kid and gleaning wisdom from "Talk to Your Teen," a parenting guide. But when he becomes the lone "adult" with four scared youngsters in a damaged spacecraft, Liam must rely on his computer-gaming skills and the strong example of his taxi-driving dad, now thousands of miles away. As with his acclaimed "Millions," author Frank Cottrell Boyce makes you laugh and think about parents and growing up, about the goodness of gravity and the infinite stars.

A MILLION SHADES OF GRAY

By Cynthia Kadohata

Atheneum. $16.99, ages 10 and up

As a Vietnamese elephant trainer, Y'Tin wants only to tend to his favorite charge, Lady, but war keeps intruding. It is 1975, and though U.S. soldiers have been gone for two years, the North Vietnamese Army plans to punish any American-friendly villages. Captured during an attack and separated from Lady and his family, Y'Tin manages to escape into the jungle. As he struggles to survive and trace his family, the easygoing young teen hardens. It is "not good to love something during a war," he reminds himself, but then the plight of Lady and her newborn calf forces him to make a difficult decision. Newbery Medalist Cynthia Kadohata commingles shadow (Y'Tin helps dig a mass grave) and light (his gentle care of his little sister and the elephants) in this finely drawn portrait of a boy trying to find hope and direction in an upended world. This remarkable work of historic fiction powerfully evokes a specific time and place while exploring issues pertinent to any war.

NORTHWARD TO THE MOON

By Polly Horvath

Schwartz & Wade. $17.99, ages 10-13

"There is nothing like finding out things you have never known about members of your own family," muses Jane -- a statement that underlies author Polly Horvath's entire extraordinary oeuvre. In this intriguing novel, the secrets revolve around Jane's stepfather, Ned, who is trying to figure out the connections between a Canadian tribe, a bag of money and his brother, a Las Vegas magician. The family meanders from British Columbia's "jagged frozen air" to Reno's "bright casino bulbs" till they come to a locale that surely holds the answers: the Nevada ranch of Ned's long-estranged mother. The fraught, sometimes funny reunion gives Jane insight into Ned, his family and her own mother and siblings. But just as events seem about to resolve themselves, new twists (a younger sister's desperate homesickness, Jane's crush on a ranch hand) steer the story into new territory. This sequel to "My One Hundred Adventures" can stand on its own, as a mystery in which "Who are you?" often proves more compelling than "Who done it?"

OUT OF MY MIND

By Sharon M. Draper

Atheneum. $16.99, ages 10 and up

Melody cannot speak. For almost 11 years, cerebral palsy has trapped her in an awkward body and other people's condescension. Only her supportive parents and neighbor Mrs. V seem aware of her intelligence and spunk. Then one day, a special machine arrives through which Melody can voice the feelings and thoughts swirling inside her. She begins to excel in her fifth-grade inclusion classes and even qualifies for the school's Whiz Kids quiz team. Melody wants "to be like all the other girls" on the team -- until the national competition goes painfully awry. In Melody, author Sharon Draper creates an authentic character who insists, through her lively voice and indomitable will, that the reader become fully involved with the girl in the pink wheelchair. Details such as the messy particulars of Melody's daily routine, her anger over being babied intellectually and the arguments between her loving but strained parents add verisimilitude to this important novel.

Mary Quattlebaum, a children's autho r and writing teacher, contributes regularly to Book World.


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