Toes, by Tor Seidler (HarperCollins, $15.99; ages 8-up). In his books for middle readers, especially animal fantasies such as A Rat's Tale, The Wainscott Weasel and now Toes, Tor Seidler does with words what master illustrator Chris Van Allsburg often does with pictures. He creates alternate worlds that are rooted in everyday reality but tweaked just enough -- lent an animal's or a solitary child's perspective and nudged back a few decades -- to give them an aura of otherness and timelessness. In this lovely novel, the hero, Toes, is a freakishly intelligent, music-loving, seven-toed cat, and the ambience is pure '50s, despite such contemporary grace notes as a mall, a TV remote and an SUV. Bullied by his siblings into fleeing life with a nice suburban family, Toes fetches up in the basement of a lonely, out-of-work violinist, with whom he forms a mutually beneficial friendship. Both of them like "heartrendingly sad" music, but both also know that "in a funny way it was the sadness that cheered [them] up." That captures the tone of Seidler's gentle, poignant, funny tale perfectly.
Looking for Bobowicz, by Daniel Pinkwater (HarperCollins, $15.99; ages 8-12). Pinkwater also likes to set his books a few decades back, though he specializes in whimsical tall tales rather than moral fables. He is particularly drawn to the eccentric paradise that was vaguely '40s-era Hoboken, N.J., a lost world of crammed basements, Classics Comics, hand-me-down bicycles, radios, Fudgsicles, helpful public librarians and little corner stores. That was the memorable setting of The Hoboken Chicken Emergency (1977), in which young Arthur Bobowicz, sent out to buy a Thanksgiving turkey, comes home instead with a 266-pound chicken named Henrietta. Looking for Bobowicz is set in the present but revisits Pinkwater's preferred era when three kids (led by Nick, whose parents have moved to Hoboken from the suburbs for the "urban lifestyle") unearth some old newspaper clippings about the time Henrietta ran amok. The trio decides to find out what happened to her, Arthur and the rest -- as well as who has stolen Nick's bicycle. Apparently, this is all the excuse Pinkwater needs to recycle his favorite period scenery, props and even language (the grown-up Arthur, for instance, is hiding out as a deejay named Vic Trola). But most of the cultural references and much of Pinkwater's trademark deadpan humor will escape young readers, and there is not much else to hold their interest since the plot is creaky and the characters are little more than types.
B for Buster, by Iain Lawrence (Delacorte, $15.95; ages 12-up). In this unusual and moving Canadian novel set during World War II, the 16-year-old hero is a comics fan, too, as we learn early on. Having lied about his age to get into the Canadian Air Force, Kak is in England in spring 1943 on his first training flight, in a Halifax bomber named B for Buster. " 'Shazam!' I cried into the intercom. . . . I felt that I could -- like Captain Marvel -- use the wizard's spell to change myself from a boy to a hero." The rest of the novel traces the arc of Kak's inevitable disillusionment, as one nightmarish op succeeds another and his fantasies of courage fray to nothing. But which is harder, to keep flying, "pitched along through the flak and the boiling air," or to "pack it in" and earn that searing label, LMF, "Lacking in Moral Fiber"? Kak forms a friendship with the one person who seems to understand, the enigmatic man who looks after the homing pigeons that flew in every Halifax bomber. He finds himself drawing a strength from the little birds that he never got from Captain Marvel or the Green Lantern.
Never Mind, by Avi and Rachel Vail (HarperCollins, $15.99; ages 10-up). Edward and Meg are twins, but as Edward puts it,"She's twelve noon. I'm midnight. We're that different." Seventh grade has just started, with Edward at an unstructured alternative school and Meg at a magnet school for academic overachievers. In this entertaining, pitch-perfect tale, co-authored by Newbery medallist Avi and his friend and fellow novelist Rachel Vail, the twins take turns chronicling an escapade that proves they are more alike than they thought. The plot is too complicated to summarize, involving more deceptions and double identities than a Shakespearean comedy, as well as bumbling, anxious parents, popular girls, skeptical loners, revenge plots, preteen romantic angst, universal self-doubt and a band called Never Mind that's so bad it verges on greatness. Yet the two authors deftly tie off every thread and flesh out nearly every stereotype (even the parents).
-- Elizabeth Ward