Spring’s Picks for Young Readers

Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre
Cakes in Space
(Random House, 2015)

Returning with a second installment in their Not-So-Impossible-Tales series, Reeve and McIntyre spin buoyant, zany, intelligent confectionary in Cakes in Space. Both a throwback and palpably modern, this swift, illustrated chapter book for seven-to-ten-year-olds is a thoughtful, laugh-out-loud delight.

The future has arrived, and Astra and her family are among the first settlers off to colonize Nova Mundi, Earth’s new outpost in space. The journey may be long, but the accommodations are far more plush than those weathered by our pioneering ancestors. Aboard a massive robot-piloted passenger ship, the human travelers will sleep comfortably for 199 years in their own cozy hibernation pods. Hankering for a midnight snack before bed, Astra sneaks off to the dining hall where the Nom-O-Tron promises it can synthesize anything she wishes. Literally anything. After gobbling down a delicious cookie, Astra begs the machine for a “brilliant” “ultimate” cake. Seemingly stumped, the machine goes silent, and Astra tucks into her pod unsatisfied.

Over 100 years pass and Astra is awoken suddenly, but something is wrong: the ship has not yet reached its final destination; all the other passengers are still asleep. Floating through the ghostly hallways seeking help, Astra arrives back at the dining hall to a terrifying scene: in the decades and decades since her request, the Nom-O-Tron has been baking cake after cake, remaking and perfecting its recipe to achieve “the most amazing, super-fantastic cake ever,” as instructed. Over the years the cakes evolved bodies and consciousness and evil intentions. The power drain caused by the Nom-O-Tron’s machinations has diverted the ship from its course and sent its systems haywire. Now adrift in space, Astra is the only one who can defeat the marauding cakes, thwart a band of Poglite spoon scavengers, repair the ship, and save its passengers.

As with their first adventure, Oliver and the Seawigs (an entirely different cast of characters), Cakes zings with wit, charm, and a distinctly British sensibility about camp and quirk. In all the best ways, Cakes reads like an episode of Doctor Who as written by Roald Dahl, jam-packed with wild irreverence but pulsing with a kind and sentimental heart. If the Daleks find they’re missing any of their plunger attachments, they might take a peek at the appendages of the Poglites’ space cruisers.

While fun is clearly the focus, it’s the subtly nightmarish notes that elevate Cakes above other similarly silly early-reader chapter books. It’s difficult to find serious and substantial thought in books for this age group and reading level, but Reeve and McIntyre serve it with images of Astra looking on the sleeping forms of her family in the midst of the chaos. She reaches out to their tranquil image on a monitor, the gesture seeming both a promise to protect them, and a desperate wish for their help, their faces at once innocently peaceful, and morbidly remote, unreachable. Too, a being referred to as “The Horror,” a shape-shifting black puddle of unknown origin and aspiration proves deeply unsettling. While not overtly evil, its lack of clear motivation, and featureless blackness serves as a corporeal parallel to the empty space that presses in on the ship’s windows, ready to devour. Astra may enlist the help of a nurse robot, but its unblinking, expressionless face is far from a comfort. Outside the world of humans, all that seems to exist is impassivity, or something far worse.

That added drop of darkness in an otherwise smiling, Technicolored world, mastered by Dahl, works to memorable effect in Cakes, creating a jaunty, playful, and alluring bedtime story.

Rita Williams-Garcia
Gone Crazy in Alabama
(Amistad, 2015)

With Gone Crazy in Alabama, Rita Williams-Garcia draws a fittingly intimate and personal conclusion to her three-book series about the Gaither sisters, begun in One Crazy Summer, and continued by P.S. Be Eleven. A story that has sent three African American girls to the vibrant and turbulent streets of 1960s Oakland and Brooklyn finally returns home in a meditation on family and personal history.

Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern have seen a lot in the last year. Having spent the prior summer with their estranged mother in Oakland marching with the Black Panther Party, and the school year with their father in Brooklyn watching their beloved Uncle Darnell succumb to addiction following a tour of duty in Vietnam, the girls have certainly had their eyes opened to the social and political upheaval surrounding them. But eldest Delphine wonders how much her younger sisters have really learned from their recent experiences. They may raise their fists and proclaim “black power,” but they still squabble and back-bite like the precocious imps she’s spent so much of her own adolescence dutifully looking after.

So it comes as welcome news when their father announces that the girls will be spending the summer down in Alabama with their grandmother Big Ma, and great-grandmother Ma Charles. Delphine hopes this trip will heal the schisms in her family before her stepmother gives birth to yet another sibling for her and the girls. But upon arrival she realizes a peaceful sojourn is not in store: the girls are picked up at the bus stop by none other than their disappeared Uncle Darnell, newly rehabilitated and hoping to make amends. Grudge-holding Vonetta is having none of it. At the homestead, they soon find themselves pawns in the midst of a long simmering family feud between Ma Charles and her sister across the creek whom she hasn’t spoken with in years. Brooklyn may be making progress, but Alabama is still very much in the past, and their impassioned calls to “fight the man” fall on scornful ears. Despite her best efforts, it seems Delphine’s family is more fractured than ever.

It’s been a tremendous pleasure getting to know the Gaither sisters. At turns funny, sassy, wise, hard-headed, and naïve, the girls are full of life, and Garcia’s ability to weave their personal evolution with the cacophonous historical backdrop makes these books as much a coming-of-age as they are historical fiction. The three vantage points presented in the three books inform both the reader and the characters, and the way they parse and struggle with the lessons they’re learning rings authentically. The crafting of each of the girls is so true and particular as to elicit laughs when one does or says something that’s just so quintessentially them. Meeker characters might have been lost in the detailing of the rich historical tapestry, but the Gaither sisters tower in the narrative. By drawing down the lens in this final installment, Garcia allows the focus to highlight just how far they’ve come, and how these larger forces are still shaping the people they’re growing into.

With this last piece in place, Garcia’s tender, nuanced portrait comes to a satisfying and earned completion. Pick up One Crazy Summer knowing a resonant, dynamic, and heartfelt journey awaits.

Lisa Graff
Lost in the Sun
(Philomel Books, 2015)

A poignant novel about accidents, guilt, rage, and recovery, Lost in the Sun, feels like something of a rarity. It’s honed, straightforward, upfront with its themes and emotions, possessed with the rich timelessness of E. B. White, and the clarity of Katherine Paterson. With no bells or whistles, Lisa Graff has raised a mighty noise.

It’s been eight months since Trent hit the hockey puck that killed his teammate Jared, but while a new school year has started, for Trent that “one bad shot” is still reverberating through his every moment. Old friends have become estranged, his parents, divorced, look on him with helplessness and frustration. No one knows the right thing to say, so Trent turns inward, filling sketchbooks with alternate heroic and implausible deaths for the boy whose life he took in one instant of fatally bad luck. An enormous rage simmers just below his surface, erupting frequently and sometimes unpredictably. Trent can’t bring himself to return to sports, a place where he used to be able to release his energy, instead acting out against any teacher or coach who approaches him with good intentions.

On the verge of spiraling out of control, Trent’s classmate Fallon inserts herself into his life. Odd, assertive, and genuine, Fallon bears a jagged scar running across her face, the origin of which she is constantly refabricating. While initially annoyed at her pushiness, Trent is eventually disarmed by Fallon, finding in their friendship a safe port in the storm of his feelings. But crawling out of the ruins is no simple task, and Trent’s rage may burn everything to the ground before he can begin to rebuild.

In just a few pages, Graff establishes her authority as a writer and storyteller. The leaned-back easiness of her delivery and her handling of the characters are some of the most remarkable aspects of Sun. Honesty comes naturally to her, as does meaning. For a story so much about hot running emotions and fateful tragedy, her rendering deftly avoids overwrought melodrama.

This season also produced Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, a terrific book about a girl floundering in school due to a case of undiagnosed dyslexia. While Tree and Sun are similar in their portraits of kids struggling in isolation, they take opposite tracks to resolve these conflicts. Tree succeeds by celebrating the impact a dedicated teacher can have on a wayward child, but narratively speaking, there’s a feeling of deus ex machina when an adult character does so much to solve the problems of a young protagonist. Graff takes the alternate route, allowing Trent to generate his own realizations in order to find his way forward. While two of Trent’s teachers continue to open doors for him to reenter their good graces, it’s his eventual choice to step through them on his own terms that makes his transformation feel earned.

Wholly authentic, absorbing and satisfying, for all the modesty of its presentation, Lost in the Sun is a standout and among the year’s best.

Contributor

Jordan B. Nielsen

JORDAN B. NIELSEN received her master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Edinburgh. She has been reviewing children’s literature since 2008, and is currently the children’s book buyer for The powerHouse Arena, an independent bookstore in Dumbo, Brooklyn.

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