The Teacher's Funeral: A Comedy in Three Parts, by Richard Peck (Dial, $16.99; ages 10- up). The first sentence of this wickedly funny paean to education sets the tone: "If your teacher has to die, August isn't a bad time of year for it." The novel may be rooted in the remote and ancient world that is 1904 rural Indiana, but the kids -- especially 15-year-old Russell Culver, who narrates -- are as alert as any modern suburban teenager would be to the bright side of Miss Myrt Arbuckle's sudden demise ("It was like a miracle, though she must have been forty."). Russell is sure school won't open, freeing him to follow his star to the Dakotas. No such luck. His sister inherits Miss Arbuckle's pointer, and Russell learns that Tansy "was a teacher, make no mistake about it. Down to her toes. She was good and grew better." By the end of the year and the tale, he and his buddies have found they know "way more than we wanted to." School has rarely been paid a more backhanded, or more effective, tribute.
Useful Idiots, by Jan Mark (David Fickling, $15.95; young adult). At more than 400 densely plotted pages, this dark piece of science fiction will challenge all but the most sophisticated YA readers. But Mark has made her name as an original and iconoclastic sf writer for young readers in her native Britain, where she has twice won the Carnegie Medal, and Useful Idiots is worth sticking with. Fast forward to 2055. Rising sea levels have shrunk Europe to a single political entity, and biomedical advances have eliminated disease and disfiguration. Only remnant populations of aboriginals serve as reminders of the violent, fragmented past -- until the unearthing of a skeleton on aboriginal land reveals the same old forces disturbing the supposedly perfect surface of the new Europe. But as the young archaeologist Merrick Korda finds himself asking: Is someone manipulating "useful idiots" like him to make sure they boil over?
The Breaker Boys, by Pat Hughes (Farrar Straus Giroux, $18; ages 9-12). In this old-fashioned but rousing work of historical fiction, Pat Hughes takes us into the heart of Pennsylvania coal country in the summer of 1897, a few months before the Lattimer Massacre in which 19 striking union miners, mostly Polish and Italian immigrants, were killed. By telling the story of that summer from the perspective of 12-year-old Nate Tanner, the scapegrace son of a wealthy mine-owning family who secretly befriends the boys in the breakers -- the dark, dirty buildings where coal was broken and sorted -- Hughes elicits sympathy for both sides in a complex struggle. "Nate's family had so much, how could the breaker boys ever believe they feared losing it? More to the point -- why should they care?" Good questions. Terrific, thought-provoking book.
Picture Books for Halloween
Wake the Dead, by Monica A. Harris, illustrated by Susan Estelle Kwas (Walker, $16.95; ages 4-8). Henry does everything so loudly -- playing, walking, talking, you name it -- that his family warns him he'll wake the dead. When he ignores them, that's just what happens, with lethally comic results. The dead, outraged, come forth to find the disturber of their peace, prompting a stream of killer jokes. ("The dead looked in the beauty salon. 'Oh, honey, you look like death warmed over!' the beautician said.") After working their fingers to the bone, their feet are killing them, but they finally track down Henry, who has to organize a game of kick the bucket and other morbid party pursuits to persuade the thoroughly energized dead back into their tombs.
Gonna Roll the Bones, illustrated by David Wiesner (Milk & Cookies, $16.95; ages 6-up). An abridged version of Fritz Leiber's 1968 Hugo Award-winning tale about a man who gambles his life and soul in a crap game with Death, this might seem a rather unsettling story for its target age group. Then again, since the age group secretly likes nothing better than to be frightened out of its skin on a dark pre-Halloween night, maybe the image of a pair of dice suspended in the hollow eye sockets of the Big Gambler, "each with the single red gleam of an ace showing," will suit it just fine. Caldecott medalist David Wiesner matches the spirit, if not always the letter, of the text in rust-colored pencil illustrations that have the look of pages dug up from a muddy grave.
-- Elizabeth Ward