Poor Leon! In Jane Clarke’s story “Neon Leon” (Nosy Crow/Candlewick, ages 2-5), Leon the chameleon definitely stands out. With his brilliant red-orange tail curled into a spiral, and his eyes big and round, Leon is a chameleon who doesn’t seem to be able to duplicate the look of either his surroundings or his fellow chameleons. No matter what he does, Leon remains a rich, dazzling color. Readers are invited to imagine the color Leon ought to turn in the desert (a warm, sandy yellow), and to call out loudly to Leon the color he should be as he slips among big gray rocks in the mountains. Leon’s hue — rendered by illustrator Britta Teckentrup — remains vibrant and easy to see. His color is so loud it keeps the other, now night-shadow-blue chameleons awake. And when he heads off alone and finds a flock of creatures who share his bright color, he is dismayed when they all fly off. But there’s still hope, and the narrator suggests that readers whisper encouragingly to Leon: “Don’t worry, Leon. Everything will be okay.” When Leon finally finds a home that suits him, along with something more, his neon coloring seems pretty special. Young readers will get the point — everyone’s a bit different, but with patience and determination there’s a good chance of finding a perfect match in the end.
— Kathie Meizner
Spirituality and a mountain adventure intertwine in “Zen and Gone” (Soho Teen, ages 12 and up), a compelling, thought-provoking YA novel by Emily France. While visiting his aunt in Boulder, Colo., nerdy Oliver befriends a girl who seems his opposite: savvy, outdoorsy Essa. But it turns out Oliver and Essa share a bond in the intense responsibilities they have shouldered. Oliver’s sister has a mental illness; Essa, whose mother is a stoner, has long cared for her lively 9-year-old sister, Puck. Through alternating chapters, Oliver and Essa chronicle a summer of bonfires and hikes, vividly describing a natural world beloved by Essa and increasingly less alien to Oliver. As they fall in love, Essa shares details of her Zen Buddhist practice, which helps to keep her present and mindful in the swirl of life’s uncertainty and pain. Suspense escalates when Puck follows them on a wilderness trek and goes missing. Essa must constantly remind herself to “stay calm, to follow her breath, to be in the moment” if she is to survive and find her sister. The romance, family dramas and physical danger keep us turning the pages, but the generous embrace of the spiritual truly enriches this reading experience.
— Mary Quattlebaum
In “Spooked!” (Calkins Creek, ages 10-14), Gail Jarrow engagingly promotes skepticism and the value of ferreting out the facts as she explains how an hour-long radio broadcast about invading aliens became an infamous episode in history. Jarrow sets the scene by describing the anxious mood of 1938, with its economic uncertainties and international tensions. She also provides readers with a good introduction to the two charismatic figures, Orson Welles and John Houseman, who came up with the idea of adapting H.G. Wells’s 1897 novel “The War of the Worlds” for modern audiences. Welles, Houseman and their collaborators set out to make a good radio show, not terrify the nation, but their broadcast — which included an actor who sounded uncannily like then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt — was altogether too convincing for those who tuned in late and didn’t realize what radio-drama mischief they had encountered. After delving into the panicked listener reactions as well as the overblown news media reports about that panic, Jarrow wisely recommends that readers listen to the original broadcast — readily available on YouTube — and analyze the notorious Martian invasion for themselves.
— Abby McGanney Nolan