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FOR YOUNG READERS

Cool Titles for Hot Days

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By Elizabeth Ward
Sunday, June 8, 2008; Page BW12

In Japan, the traditional season for ghost stories and mysteries isn't late fall, but high summer, when chills are actually useful. Here are three cool titles for the hot days ahead.

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BIRD LAKE MOON By Kevin Henkes | Greenwillow. 179 pp. $15.99 (ages 10-14)

A ghost and more than one mystery hover in this quiet, affecting novel set on Wisconsin's Bird Lake. Twelve-year-old Mitch has been left "with more questions than answers" after his father decamps with a woman from his office in Madison. Now he's spending the summer at his grandparents' lakeside house and wondering not just about the impending divorce but about the "intruders" who've moved into the empty place next door. Angry and heartsick, Mitch sets about driving them out. That causes 10-year-old Spencer, a member of the intruder family, to fear the place might be haunted, even as he struggles to deal with the even more unsettling shadow of his brother, drowned years before in Bird Lake at age 4. Presences and absences jostle: "Almost anything could be construed as a sign." Gradually, the two boys forge a friendship, based at least in part on the suspicion each harbors that the other's loss might be even worse than his own.

The moon of the title, meanwhile, sails in and out of the action, a metaphor for the clarity and illumination both boys seek. "Blinking, he looked for the moon. It was nowhere to be seen. A few nights ago it had been full, attention-seeking, a glorious advertisement for itself. Now it was concealed behind clouds. But it was still there. Somewhere. Just because you can't see something doesn't mean it isn't there." That last line, at once scary and consoling, sums up this novel so well it's spooky. Don't forget, though, that Henkes is also the creator of the hilarious picture book Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse. At least two characters in Bird Lake Moon, Mitch's snippy grandmother and Spencer's drama queen of a little sister, ensure that the going is far from heavy.

PEELED By Joan Bauer | Putnam. 256 pp. $16.99 (ages 10-14)

" Murder is a big word in a small town." So when a ghost -- or somebody -- starts dishing out mayhem in an economically distressed apple-growing community in upstate New York, the local news media are on the case. Strangely, though, while our high-school reporter heroine, Hildy, is all fired up with "a fierce desire to find the truth" about the peril emanating from a certain vacant farmhouse, the town rag appears equally fired up about feeding the frenzy. "Ludlow House Claims New Victim! . . . Who's Next? . . . Local Girl Traumatized!" It's not too much of a surprise when the ghostly goings-on are exposed as part of a developer's takeover bid, in which the town paper is implicated. What is surprising is the deftness with which Bauer wraps her moral -- the higher mission of newspapers -- inside a souffle-light and thoroughly entertaining murder mystery. Hildy worries at one point whether she's really cut out for journalism. "I had a hard time leaving my opinions out of what I was writing," she despairs. Bauer, though, has figured out how to make opinions palatable.

Kids who've enjoyed Carl Hiaasen's opinionated satirical romps, Hoot and Flush, should love Peeled. Me, I'm planning to check out Squashed, a 2001 Bauer title that supposedly tucks a rumination on teenage worries about weight inside a yarn about a pumpkin weigh-off.

THE CALDER GAME By Blue Balliett | Illustrated by Brett Helquist Scholastic. 379 pp. $17.99 (ages 9-12)

Those precocious young sleuths Calder, Petra and Tommy return in another art-themed mystery by the author of Chasing Vermeer and The Wright 3. This one, the most convincingly plotted of the three, is set in England, where Calder and his dad are visiting. Is it pure coincidence that Calder vanishes just as an enormous Alexander Calder sculpture disappears from an Oxfordshire village square? Of course not. Luckily, Calder's dad thinks to fly Tommy and Petra in from Chicago to help the inept British police search in and around the intimidating Blenheim Palace maze. The three kids are the earnest goody-goodies they've always been, but Balliett has a lot of fun riffing on the themes of change over time, shifting relationships, primary colors and the number five, all embodied in Alexander Calder's fabulous mobiles.

Elizabeth Ward can be reached at warde@washpost.com.


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