The ghost of Jacob Grimm, an angry Chinese boy and two determined raccoons engage in very different missions in this year’s finalists for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, which will be announced next Wednesday in New York.
Gene Luen Yang explores both sides of China’s Boxer Rebellion (circa 1899 to 1901) in the two graphic novels that compose Boxers & Saints (First Second, $34.99, age 12 and up). In “Boxers,” Little Bao and other peasants rise up against the Western “foreign devils” and the Chinese Christians they believe are taking over the country. “Saints” focuses on Four-Girl, a lonely Christian convert emboldened by her visions of Saint Joan of Arc to fight the peasants. Especially fascinating and poignant are the occasional appearances of one character in the other’s story and their different perceptions of the same historical events. Yang also repeats key images in both books to underscore the protagonists’ common humanity in contrast to the violent extremism of their causes. As with his 2006 NBA finalist, “American Born Chinese,” Yang weaves words and pictures, myth and history, into a complex, heartfelt, visually arresting tale.
In a small American town “brimming with promise,” the ghost of folklorist Jacob Grimm perceives the shadows that draw a group of young people “deeper into their tale.” With his 19th-century diction and Old World sensibility, Jacob makes for a bemused, stylish narrator in Tom McNeal’s Far Far Away (Knopf, $17.99, age 12 and up). This brilliant novel compels the reader to reexamine the old fairy tales in light of contemporary events, and vice versa. Jacob’s teenage friend, Jeremy Johnson Johnson, is a quiet hero with a big heart, abandoned by a mother in “search of a happy ending.” There is a lost key, a vanished child, bewitching cakes, and evil and good in unexpected people. When Jeremy becomes the victim of a crime, he and the ghost must seek out and confront the horrors that “move hidden among us — carried in the pockets and cuffs of the commonplace and the routine.”
Picture Me Gone (Putnam, $17.99, age 12 and up) shines a shifting light on the things we keep hidden even — or perhaps, especially — from those we love. The life of 12-year-old Mila is upended when her father’s best friend, Matthew, suddenly disappears. The methodical girl and her father trace an erratic course through Upstate New York, from Matthew’s beautiful home to a forest hideaway to a seedy motel. As they try to solve the mystery of Matthew’s whereabouts, they become mired in his shady past. They talk to his seething wife, an ex-girlfriend and a young man who may (or may not) be his son. The possibility that Mila’s father may have played a role in these secrets forces her to question the family she has always treasured. The world, Mila concludes, is “imperfect, dangerous, peppered with betrayals and also with love.” As with the author’s Printz Award-winning “How I Live Now,” Meg Rosoff underpins this emotionally taut coming-of-age novel with subtle, compassionate characterizations.
In The Thing About Luck (Atheneum, $16.99, ages 10-14), Summer’s family feels sadly lacking in good fortune. With her migrant parents in Japan caring for an ailing relative, 12-year-old Summer and her grandparents must take their places during the wheat-harvesting season. To add to that difficulty, the grandmother wrestles with back pain, and Summer struggles with her morbid fear of mosquitoes and the possibility of another deadly bout of malaria. Nature poses its own problems, too, and the grueling details of farm labor emphasize the stress of an agrarian way of life. Summer’s challenges are further complicated by her attraction to the boss’s son and her concern for her friendless younger brother. Newbery Medal winner Cynthia Kadohata is a master of the family drama, and this graceful novel of survival and growth abounds with all the humor and shared heartache of an authentic family.
The storytelling voice in The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp (Atheneum, $16.99, ages 8-12) is as warm and vivid as the novel’s bayou setting. When feral hogs threaten the swamp, two vigilant raccoons decide to warn its legendary (and constantly napping) protector, the Sugar Man. The problem? They have no idea where he lives or how to get past his giant pet rattlesnake. Humans provide additional complications with their plans to pave the place and build the Gator World Wrestling Arena and Theme Park. Kathi Appelt (disclosure: a colleague of mine at Vermont College) deftly blends multiple stories into a confection as satisfying as the sugar pies that exert a surprising influence over the developers, the snake, the two raccoons and the Sugar Man himself. Appelt laces this eco-fantasy with down-home villains worthy of Dickens, including swamp owner Sonny Boy Beaucoup, head hogs Buzzie and Clydine and lady wrestler Jaeger Stitch. Just as original as “The Underneath,” Appelt’s NBA finalist in 2008, this East Texas tale can be relished in solitude, but why not treat the whole family to a rollicking read-aloud?
Quattlebaum is a children’s author and regular reviewer for The Washington Post. She teaches at Vermont College’s MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults.