Sonny's House of Spies, by George Ella Lyon (Atheneum, $16.95; ages 11-14). Lyon, a Kentucky poet and veteran children's author, weaves humor and heartbreak in a spirited coming-of-age tale set in 1950s Alabama. Everyone watches everyone else in the Bradshaw household now that Daddy has lit out for Mobile, but dreamy Sonny watches most obsessively. Coached by his smart-mouthed sister, Loretta ("I'm alive and I pay attention"), hindered by his protective, gin-swigging mama and eccentric aunts and uncles, he slowly winkles out the truth about a whole range of '50s-era "hidden rules," from homosexuality to race relations. The plot is a page-turner, but it's the language that shimmers in the memory: "She had on a bright green-and-white checkered dress, like something a rabbit might dream"; "a door the color of chocolate when it starts to whiten"; a coffin "shut tight as a turtle's mouth"; "Alabama! Yes, Lord, and Galilee!"
The King of Slippery Falls, by Sid Hite (Scholastic, $16.95; ages 12-up). Inspired by Mark Twain's dictum "Apparently there is nothing that cannot happen," Hite spins a tale as slippery and alluring as the waterfall of his title. On a day when winter has finally "loosened its gelid grip over southern Idaho," Lewis Hinton is feeling torn. On the one hand, he wants to focus on catching his dream fish, a giant trout nobody else has seen. On the other, he has been suffering a whopper of an identity crisis since learning on his 15th birthday that he was adopted. The wild ride that is the rest of the book begins when Lewis learns on his next birthday that adoption isn't the half of it: His real name is Louis, and he may be descended from French royalty. Or is that just another fish story? Teenagers are constantly being urged to find out who they are. They should enjoy a novel that can take a cliche and have such wicked fun with it. (Consider Lewis's mom's response when he swears he will always be her son, no matter what: "She gulped, repressed a sob, and said, 'That was beautifully spoken, Lewis. I doubt if Danielle Steel could have written anything more perfect.' ") Funny, then, how Hite also ends up giving another tired maxim new legs: You get to choose the story you tell with your own life.
Stanley Goes for a Drive, by Craig Frazier (Chronicle, $15.95; ages 4-8). Picture books aren't just about pictures. As such adepts as Margaret Wise Brown, Byron Barton and Molly Bang have shown, the words are important, too -- especially since there are, or should be, so few of them (Bang's brilliant Yellow Ball has just 28). Vocabulary, rhythm, placement on the page are all crucial. In his first children's book, graphic designer Craig Frazier makes the tricky art of marrying words and pictures look deceptively easy. When "Stanley set out for a drive with little on his mind" -- the single, inviting sentence on the first double-page spread -- the world he sees is as empty and dry as his imagination, done in black, dusty browns and desiccated reds. But then, "Stanley passed a herd of cows." His eye caught by a cow's bright, milk-white patches, "Stanley had an idea" that would change everything. In a dizzying chain reaction of creativity, he milks the cow, its patches become milk, the milk becomes clouds. Finally, "the clouds began to pour." As Stanley drives home, the pages, like his thoughts and spirits, have been struck green. The cow has just one apt word for this miraculous transformation: "Mooo."
Hiroshima: The Story of the First Atom Bomb, by Clive A. Lawton (Candlewick, $18.99; ages 9-12). On an infinitely more sober note, this month is the 59th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Aug. 6 and 9 respectively). Just because the subject remains controversial doesn't mean parents and teachers should shield children from it. On the contrary, have them go see the Enola Gay at the Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles airport. Then give them a book, such as this copiously illustrated account by a British educator, that fills in the Smithsonian exhibit's intentional information gaps. Why did President Truman send the Enola Gay to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima? What did the bomb do to that city and its people? Sensitive to both background and aftermath, Lawton nevertheless rightly concludes, "Perhaps the greatest deterrent to the use [of nuclear weapons] is the legacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki."
-- Elizabeth Ward