Three books by Minnesota writers tackle the tricky problems of growing up.
"Pablo and Birdy," by Alison McGhee, illustrated by Ana Juan; Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books (304 pages, $17.99)
An orphan and a non-talking parrot are the unlikely pair at the center of Alison McGhee's new middle-grade novel "Pablo and Birdy."
As a baby, Pablo washed up on the beach of the small town of Isla during a record storm. He was adopted by an islander named Emmanuel and the two formed a family, running a small shop catering to tourists. But as Pablo's 10th birthday and another record storm approach, change is stirring on the island.
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Twin Cities writer McGhee builds her story masterfully through a collage of voices, careful revelations about Pablo's background, and a search by islanders and outsiders for the mythic Seafaring Parrot, which is reputed to hear every sound ever made, every voice that ever spoke, at the same time.
She also finds humor in a quartet of busybody birds that use their repertoire of phrases to comment on the island's residents and barge into the action.
Isla is home to many refugees – those fleeing convention, such as the Canadian baker Pierre, as well as those leaving poverty or political conflict, such as Emmanuel, who is a Cuban refugee.
As Pablo begins to question the stories the adults have told to protect him, he bumps up against their histories and their losses, and a deeper understanding of the surge of migrants arriving on his island.
"You were a someone before you were set upon the waves," the town veterinarian and mother figure, Maria, tells Pablo. "You were a someone, and ... someone wanted you to live."
At the end of the book, McGhee thanks the many immigrant students she has taught over the years. "Pablo and Birdy" takes a story old and urgent and weaves it into a resonant quest.
"Slider" by Pete Hautman; Candlewick (288 pages, $16.99)
Minnesota readers will immediately get the title reference in Pete Hautman's new middle-grade novel "Slider." And while the buy-em-by-the-sack burgers in the novel are renamed SooperSliders, Hautman's story of a 14-year-old competitive eater leaves no doubt about the original reference.
David begins the novel with a dilemma. He's accidentally bid $2,000 on his mom's credit card to buy a half-eaten hot dog via an online bidding site, BuyBuy. His options for earning back the money are limited, so he jumps into eating competitions in a big way.
The competitions, with heavyweights such as El Gurgitator, are the perfect vehicle for a brand of bodily function humor that will appeal to many preteen boys. But Hautman gives it his own sly twist, letting readers feel every gurgle and ooze on David's way to qualifying for the Super Pigorino Bowl.
"Topologically speaking, you're a meat donut – a hole surrounded by flesh," says Derek, a smarmy frat boy who is dating David's sister, as he tries to convince David to hire him as his manager for a cut of the winnings.
A second thread of the novel centers around David's relationship with his autistic younger brother, Mal. While middle-child David feels pressured and ignored by his family, his relationship with Mal has the right dose of tenderness and exasperation, and offers an insight into a neurodiverse way of seeing the world.
It's this thread that gives the novel its deeper moments, even as David competes his way to the Iowa State Fair showdown of competitive eating.
"Giant Pumpkin Suite" by Melanie Heuiser Hill; Candlewick (448 pages, $16.99)
Twelve-year-old Rose and Thomas Brutigan have grown up together with their mom and Gram, but most strangers don't realize they're twins. She's gangly and driven, a rule-following cello and math prodigy several grades ahead in school. He's short, hates reading and prefers to figure out answers at his own pace.
When their next-door neighbor, Mr. Pickering, falls down his basement stairs and breaks his ribs, he asks the twins to care for a mysterious seed in his basement. They find an envelope with instructions to water it three times daily and "Prepare to Be Amazed!"
Rose is initially reluctant to take time away from practicing for an important audition, but Thomas and Mr. Pickering talk her into a project that soon consumes the entire neighborhood to feed and care for the rapidly growing pumpkin.
Minneapolis writer Melanie Heuiser Hill has written a well-paced first novel that introduces a rich cast of characters, from a rival neighbor named Calamity Jane, to the local librarian, to a quirky luthier – appropriately named Will Stringer.
By introducing two siblings, one ruled by logic and the other by intuition, she gives young readers two very different characters who ultimately find they need each other to thrive. "The bridge and the soundpost need to work together," Will Stringer tells Rose. "That's what gives the cello its sound, its soul." As "Giant Pumpkin Suite" crescendos to a dramatic conclusion at the Minnesota State Fair, it picks up deeper themes of loss, mistakes and the grace that comes with change.