A Summer Life , by Gary Soto (University Press of New England, $16.95; ages 12-up). Short stories and essays for young adults are mostly either too sophisticated or too trite for teenagers. Gary Soto may well be the author who popularizes the essay for them by delivering a collection that is a perfect fit.
The author of Baseball in April, a wonderful compendium of short stories about Mexican-American adolescents living in California, Soto has drawn on his own memories of growing up in Fresno to produce A Summer Life. Beginning with preschool-age recollections, the book is divided into three parts and ends only steps away from adulthood.
His memories are like photographs, frozen in time, short vignettes that capture the small moments both funny and poignant falling between the cracks of larger events. A poet, Soto has an ear for rhythm and a eye for texture: "At the young age of five," he writes, "I couldn't go far." But even though his world did not extend past "the side of the house," his childhood is tied together with "the odor of metal" from 7-up and root beer caps, his neighbor, Mr. Drake, "an old man shrinking in blue overalls," and the sound of his shoes "kicking up the engine of sparks that lived beneath my soles." As he gets older his world expands to pool parties and seventh grade revelations like "knowing better than to spit when girls were around."
A Summer Life is a testimony to Soto's artistry as a writer. He has captured the fleeting nature of growing up and the strange business of always having to trade in old belongings and beliefs for new ones, always struggling to catch up with oneself. Or, in his own words, "Trying to find a life other than the one we were losing."
The Shining Company , by Rosemary Sutcliff (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $14.95; ages 12-up). British author Rosemary Sutcliff is one of the most acclaimed writers of historical fiction for children. The Shining Company, her latest work, is set in the Dark Ages and is based on "The Gododdin," the earliest surviving North British poem. Sutcliff sets out to tell the story of Prosper, "second son to Gerontius, lord of three cantrefs," who narrates this compelling tale.
On a hunting trip Prosper meets Prince Gorthyn, who is impressed when the young man tries to save the object of the hunt -- a white hart. Two years later Gorthyn honors Prosper by asking him to join a war host summoned by the king to fight the invading Saxons. As second shieldbearer to the prince, Prosper joins the Companions, 300 younger sons who form what comes to be known as The Shining Company.
The preparations for war and the ensuing battle are dramatically described, as are Prosper's initial pride in the glory of the Shining Company and his subsequent agony at the sight of fallen horses and friends brutally killed.
Since Sutcliff is faithful to the poem which shapes both her story and her characters, The Shining Company is one of her more challenging books, although she still injects the humanizing and accessible qualities she brings to all her retellings. A useful map and pronunciation guide are given at the beginning of the book. Regrettably there is no table of characters, an unfortunate omission since three characters share the same name.
No More Cornflakes , by Polly Horvath (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $12.95; ages 10-up). Truly funny books are hard to write. But Polly Horvath, a master of dialogue and quick repartee, makes it all seem like a snap with her new book, No More Cornflakes. Too often middle-school fiction relies on cheap tricks like skin problems, elaborate and buffoonish romantic schemes or badly dressed eccentric adults. Horvath has resorted to none of this and has created instead a highly original and witty story.
Hortense Hemple is alarmed when her parents pretend to be rabbits and especially mortified when her mother is spotted hopping around by a classmate, the dreaded Virginia Vermeulen. As if this is not enough to convince Hortense that her once close and stable family is headed for wrack and ruin, her mother announces she is pregnant.
On the heels of this announcement come more surprises. Hortense's older sister has taken to constant sleepovers at her best friend's house. Family meals have been reduced to TV dinners and, worse yet, Aunt Kate has begun a mysterious romance. Over the course of nine months Hortense attempts to restore order through a series of ridiculous devices, including a family newspaper and a sock-sorting scheme.
Despite her best efforts, Hortense cannot fight change. And just as it seems that the bottom is about to fall out of her world some unexpected events occur that just might prove to Hortense that change isn't always a bad thing. Hortense is an endearing if somewhat precocious 10-year-old. Maybe that's what it takes to survive in the Hemple household.
White Peak Farm , by Berlie Doherty (Orchard Books, $12.95; ages 12-up). "Nothing ever seemed to change there," says Jeannie Tanner in the opening of the beautifully written family story, White Peak Farm, set in the English Derbyshire hills. "And yet, about four years ago, that change did come to us, casting its lights across the pattern of our lives." So begins the story of Jeannie's family -- of Gran, who announces she will leave the valley; of her sister Kathleen who marries a boy her parents cannot accept; and of Jeannie's brother Martin who must choose between a life on the farm and a career as an artist. All the members of Jeannie's family have stories that are told in separate chapters and are connected through Jeannie, who struggles to understand her family's choices.
Berlie Doherty skilfully brings us close to each of the characters so that we come away feeling as though we really know them. There is real human drama sparingly told in a clipped and quiet tone. Each chapter can stand alone and yet the author has subtly interwoven the complex and almost invisible ties that hold this family together.
A lovely and distinctive book, White Peak Farm is a fine piece of work by the author of the award-winning Granny Was a Buffer Girl
Teammates , by Peter Golenbock, illustrated by Paul Bacon (Gulliver/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $15.95; ages 8-up). It is nearly impossible to read this story about the friendship between baseball legend Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese without getting a lump in one's throat. Set against the backdrop of American racial segregation and prejudice in 1947, one of sports history's most famous tales is retold in this powerful and unusual picture book.
Drafted as shortstop by Branch Rickey, then general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Jackie Robinson agreed to what was called "the great experiment," in which he would be the first black player to join a major league team. His success or failure would determine the future for other black players in the major leagues: an enormous burden that was only heightened by the humiliations and abuse he endured at the hands of fans and players alike. While on the road with his own team, for example, Robinson was obliged to live by himself as he was not permitted to stay in hotels reserved for whites only.
In the midst of the hostility and dissent that surrounded this player, one man came to his defense. Ironically, as the Dodgers' other shortstop Pee Wee Reese had the most to lose if Robinson succeeded. In spite of this, in an emotionally charged scene in Crosley Field as fans "screamed hateful things," he put his arm around Jackie Robinson and stood by his teammate.
Illustrated with memorable photographs and drawings by Paul Bacon, this book is a small masterpiece. Told in simple language, it captures the enormity of Reese's single gesture and the courage required by Robinson to remain in the game. Much more than a sports story, Teammates is about one incident that reflected the racial divisions permeating the whole country.
The Adventures of Taxi Dog , by Debra and Sal Barracca, illustrated by Mark Buehner (Dial, $12.95; ages 4-8). Next time you hail a cab take a good look to see who is sitting in the front seat. In this sprightly story told in verse we are introduced to an unusual twosome. Maxi, a homeless dog in New York City, is adopted by Jim, who drives a cab. Together they share daily adventures which include getting a pregnant woman and her husband to the hospital and delivering two clowns and a chimp named Murray to the circus in time for their first performance. Its hard to tell whether it is Jim's skilful driving or Maxi's in-cab entertainment that earn them their big tips.
Upbeat and happy, the text moves along effectively as Mark Buehner's vibrant illustrations render the daily life of the city with great humor and detail. The taxi theme is cleverly continued with a black and yellow checkerboard design outlining each page of text. Buehner plays with angles and perspectives so well that the reader experiences cab life from both the inside and outside.
Maxi and Jim are a winning combination, and you'll rejoice in their good fortune in finding each other.
Claudia Logan writes frequently about children's books.