Fast-moving and thoughtful tales can be found in new chapter books for young readers

07/18/2014 7:00 AM

07/19/2014 8:33 PM

Summer vacation’s halfway point is in the rear view mirror, but a month remains until school resumes. The pool is losing its charm, and there are only so many movies on Netflix. Perfect time to reach for a book and get lost in another world.

As a mom, far be it from me to suggest the right fiction to either of my juveniles. More and more I am wrong about the clothes I think they’ll like, the movies they might enjoy, the outings they’ll find interesting; you know the deal.

So, my son, 10, and I enlisted a 13-year-old friend to represent girl readers and sat down with a stack of five recently released books, some fantasy, some realism. Our goal was to sort out what a kid might actually enjoy reading.

“The Last Wild”

The clear favorite was Piers Torday’s “The Last Wild” (322 pages; Viking; $16.99).

A virus has disrupted the ecosystem, killing most animals and destroying the food chain. Facto, an enormous and evil corporation, seizes on the disaster to monopolize the food industry.

Kester Jaynes, 12, is rendered mute by the traumatic loss of his mother and has been taken from his brilliant veterinarian father and institutionalized for six years. He observes, “Sausage’n’Mash, Ham’n’Eggs, Pie’n’Peas — everything they serve looks exactly the same: bright pink gloop that spills over the edge of the bowl and only ever tastes of one thing: prawn-cocktail crisps.”

Kester cannot speak to humans, but he has the ability to speak to every other creature — he is elected The Wild by Earth’s remaining life forms.

After bugs and birds spring him from the institution, he joins forces with a militant cockroach, a comical wolf cub, 100 pigeons, a stately stag and a no-nonsense girl to find his father and help him perfect and distribute a cure for the virus.

This book has a strong environmental message as well as a directive of an individual’s responsibility to his fellow man.

Torday wrote the entire book in dramatic scene, which means there was nonstop action and suspense, and we were never bored for even a paragraph. Look for the sequel, “Dark Wild,” in 2015.

“A Creature of Moonlight”

On the flip side of that experience was “A Creature of Moonlight” by Rebecca Hahn (313 pages; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; $17.99). Hahn almost stubbornly stays out of dramatic scene, favoring exposition that left us hungry for action.

Marni is the exiled king’s granddaughter, the current king’s niece and the daughter of a dragon. She lives a pauper’s life with her grandfather, spending her days gardening and selling flowers to the nobles.

She likes her life and doesn’t aspire to anything grander.

Suddenly, the trees around this fairy-tale kingdom begin to creep into the village, sometimes by several feet a day, and the farmers are losing valuable space for their crops which, if left unchecked, will begin a famine.

The last time the woods crowded the town, the king decided the only way to stop them was to kill Marni’s mother, his own sister, but the dragon’s mistress nevertheless. Will the king decide Marni should be sacrificed to save the kingdom?

And that sounds exciting. “But when I slip out into the trees this summer, I hear the voices singing more, and I see the lights flickering here and there, yellow and blue and green, always just at the corners of my eyes, tempting me away.”

The trouble is that even when Marni is in the woods she just talks about being in them. We never feel the tension of the lights trying to pull her in.

Hahn’s lovely prose roused in us the opposite reaction that a horror movie does. You know how during an especially tense scene you might yell at the protagonist: Don’t go near the back door!

While reading this book we were constantly shouting: For the love of God, go into the woods! Attack the king like you’ve been saying you’re going to for the past hundred pages!

“The Luck Uglies”

Paul Durham’s “The Luck Uglies” (400 pages; HarperCollins; $16.99) tells the story of Rye O’Chanter and her life in the village of Drowning on Mud Puddle Lane.

Rye is a feisty and thoughtful 11-year-old girl who lives with her mother, a shopkeeper, and her toddler sister. The village is ruled by a nasty earl who overtaxes the people, makes rules about clothing colors, and most important, claims that if his guidelines are followed the people will be safe from the dreaded Bog Noblins.

The Bog Noblins have not troubled Drowning during Rye’s lifetime. Neither have the Luck Uglies, a mysterious band of men whom the earl has cast as villains.

“Asking the Luck Uglies to solve your problems is like letting wasps into your kitchen to get rid of your flies. Once the flies are gone, who do you think the wasps will sting?”

Rye and her friends — teaching women to read is illegal but Rye’s mom bucked the ban — secure a copy of a banned book called “Tam’s Tome.” From that Rye discovers the truth about the relationship between the Luck Uglies and the local rulers. And she slowly learns her personal stakes in the snarl.

Initially we were concerned that the Dickensian squalor of cutely named Mud Puddle Lane in combination with the wicked shahlike ruler might be a disastrous mixture and difficult to enjoy. Fortunately, we were wrong.

Durham’s action sequences were thrilling and the relationships between Rye and her family were painted with such warmth that we cheered for their triumphs and finished the book feeling positive and energized.

The story also was delightfully self-referential, a great tool that kept us tightly wrapped in the fantasy. The only missteps were a few point of view slips, which took us out of close third-person to Rye and made reading screech to a halt.

A number “1” on the spine of the book has us hoping Durham plans an entire series about this village.

“Swim That Rock”

“Swim That Rock” by John Rocco and Jay Primiano (293 pages; Candlewick Press; $16.99) is the story of Jake Cole and takes place is Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay.

Jake is 14 and lives with his mother above their diner, the Riptide. His dad was a quahogger who harvests shellfish and is presumed dead after a boating accident.

Jake’s mother quickly falls behind on their rent, and Jake discovers they’ll either need to pay $10,000 within four weeks or lose the diner. Frantically, yet methodically, he begins raising money.

A mysterious man called Captain pulls Jake into working for him. The money is good, but Captain’s ethics don’t square with Jake’s, so he works reluctantly and with dread.

With his mother at the end of her rope and his father most likely at the bottom of the ocean, Jake must learn self-reliance and identify who can be trusted to help and who should be avoided, no matter the financial cost.

Rocco and Primiano play out the proverb about teaching a man to fish, literally, in this novel. I confess that I was the lone reader of this one. It struck me as appropriate for an avid reader age 12 and older.

“The Unfinished Life of Addison Stone”

I was also the only reader of “The Unfinished Life of Addison Stone” by Adele Griffin (256 pages; Soho Teen; $17.99). The content is easily PG-13: drug references, teen sex/cohabitation, life-threatening risks, possible suicide and underage drinking.

Addison Stone is a schizophrenic child art prodigy from a dysfunctional Rhode Island family. Her work is so extraordinary that by the time she’s 18 she moves to New York City where she quickly becomes a giant celebrity, making so much money that she pays all of her parents’ debt and is able to support herself.

Addy is moody, wild, stick-thin, and will listen to no one but the voice in her head — that of Ida, a woman who has been dead for 100 years.

What saves this book from teen cliché is its structure.

The premise is that Griffin takes a sabbatical and spends her time interviewing hundreds of people who knew Addison to uncover details about her untimely death just before her 19th birthday.

Rather than use a narrative format, Griffin tells the tale of Addison’s rise to fame and sudden demise through snippets of interviews with family, teachers, friends, doctors, other artists, boyfriends, and emails and texts from Addison.

Griffin has gone all-out to make readers think that Addison is a real person; her evidence for this character as a real human being is overwhelming. A prologue signed by Griffin begins: “I met Addison Stone only once. She had enrolled as a freshman in my creative writing workshop at Pratt Institute.”

The novel is complete with photographs of a young woman identified as Addison Stone, magazine features about her, as well as cover photos and the art that made her famous.

Addison’s first-grade teacher is quoted as saying, “I tried not to see the other side of Addison — a darker word than dark. But if you were to ask me if darkness was in her, too, I’d have to say yes. Even as a little girl, yes. I saw the black opposite of bright.”

Addy pulls one dangerous stunt after another, swinging from a chandelier and stealing valuable objects, until a stunt is finally the end of her. She’s a flame that burned too bright but nevertheless warmed everyone around her, even those who hated her.

Anne Kniggendorf can be reached at akknigg@gmail.com.

Local author wins award

The debut novel, “Gaby, Lost and Found,” by local author Angela Cervantes has won the 2014 International Latino Book Award for best youth chapter book.

Angela received the award for fiction last month at the American Library Association conference in Las Vegas. The University of Kansas grad co-founded Las Poetas, a Chicana poetry group that became the Latino Writers Collective. In 2005, Angela’s short story “Pork Chop Sandwiches” was published in Chicken Soup for the Latino Soul, and her stories “Ten Hail Marys” and “House of Women” led to her 2008 recognition as one of this city’s emerging writers by The Kansas City Star Magazine.

The Gaby of the book is a volunteer at an animal shelter who has a knack for composing adoption advertisements that land the strays into loving homes. With Gaby’s mom just deported to Honduras and her dad indifferent, Gaby feels much like a stray herself. The sixth-grader becomes fond of one cat in particular, hoping to make it part of the Ramirez household, but life is not always that easy.

It’s a fine tale.

| Darryl Levings, The Star

Videos

Join the Discussion

The Kansas City Star is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Terms of Service