The Fire-Eaters, by David Almond (Delacorte, $15.95; ages 8-up). Britain's Almond has been admired for his lyrical prose style and empathetic portraits of emotionally isolated children (Skellig, Kit's Wilderness). Some readers, on the other hand, find his novels sentimental and his style mannered to the point of preciousness. The Fire-Eaters, one of his best, explores the world of 11-year-old Bobby Burns, a working-class boy in northern England who in the autumn of 1962 faces various versions of "the gates of hell" (a phrase Bobby has picked up from Dean Rusk), from his dad's mysterious illness to the cruelties perpetrated at his new school to the Cuban missile crisis. With the help of a motley crew of acquaintances, including the fierce, sad, fire-eating illusionist McNulty, Bobby figures out that "if we could just get through these days and nights of dread a time of great excitement might be waiting for us all."
Messenger, by Lois Lowry (Houghton Mifflin, $16; ages 12-up). Fans of Lowry's earlier speculative fables The Giver and Gathering Blue will welcome this companion tale. Matty, "no longer a boy, but not yet a man," finds disturbing things going on in Village, where he lives with blind Seer. The community has always welcomed strangers and those in need of help; lately, however, a new suspiciousness has surfaced. The villagers vote to build a wall, closing the border. Matty, also "a master of stealth," decides he must travel through Forest -- dangerous as it is -- to fetch Seer's daughter, Kira, the gifted weaver featured in the earlier books, to stave off the coming ruin. It sounds abstract and portentous, but Lowry's mastery of dramatic pacing, eye for homey detail and sly sense of humor combine to make this allegorical world seem far more real than the cardboard-cutout malls and schools of many a "realistic" YA novel.
High as a Hawk: A Brave Girl's Historic Climb, by T.A. Barron, illustrated by Ted Lewin (Philomel, $16.99; ages 5-up). Ted Lewin's magnificent watercolors always enhance a story, but this tale is a winner in its own right. It is based on the real-life feat of 8-year-old Harriet Peters, who in 1905 became the youngest person to reach the 14,255-foot summit of Longs Peak, Colo. Harriet was accompanied by guide Enos Mills, whose efforts on behalf of preservation in the area led to the creation of Rocky Mountain National Park. Barron imagines what the pair's day must have been like, and Lewin depicts the ascent -- complete with an elk stampede and a hailstorm -- with his trademark command of vista, detail and, above all, light.
Howler, by Michael Rosen, illustrated by Neil Layton (Bloomsbury, $15.95; ages 4-8). As this sequel to Rover opens, the perpetually puzzled canine narrator is still living happily with his humans -- his pet, a little girl he calls Rover, and her mom and dad, Cindy and Rex. But change is in the offing. Cindy starts getting bigger -- not "upwards" but "outwards." Then Rex brings home "a new basket for me" (which the illustration reveals is a crib, alerting kids to the surprise to come) and hangs "small animals from the ceiling" (a mobile, naturally). Eventually, Cindy and Rex go off and return after a few days with "a very small human," whom our jealous narrator dubs Howler. Rosen's dog's-eye view of family life and the mysteries of reproduction is never arch or cloying, and Layton's third-grade-style drawings are hilarious.
Wake Up Our Souls: A Celebration of Black American Artists, by Tonya Bolden (Abrams/ Smithsonian American Art Museum, $24.95; ages 9-up). This overview of three centuries of African-American art is not, Tonya Bolden says, a comprehensive history. It offers younger readers instead "a look at the lives and creations of a small number of men and women who are part of the larger story." Still, that's quite a company, from Joshua Johnson of Baltimore, a one-time slave who was painting as early as the 1790s, to contemporary sculptor Melvin Edwards. An easy-to-read narrative also introduces kids to the marvelous collagist Romare Bearden, painters Palmer Hayden and Jacob Lawrence, sculptor Augusta Savage, photographer Gordon Parks and more than 20 others, some in detail, some "spotlighted" to provide context. Full-color reproductions bring an under-appreciated aspect of American art history to vivid life.
-- Elizabeth Ward