Recommended for Kids
BONE DANCE, by Martha Brooks. (Orchard Books, $16.95; young adult.) This is a gripping novel about two teenagers, Alex and Lonny, both of Indian descent, who have grown up apart but are pulled together by the circumstances surrounding the loss of beloved family members. When we meet Alex, she is living in Winnipeg, Canada, with her mother, a Dene Indian. Alex yearns for her father, who abandoned the family when she was a baby but who has written letters to her through the years. She is grief-stricken when her adored Cree grandfather—her best friend and substitute father—dies. Brooks describes her feelings: "She knew that he had slipped past her, past them all, past the dark of winter and midnight and consciousness and eating and sleeping and caring." Soon after this blow, Alex learns that her father too has died, leaving her a parcel of land with a small house near a lake. Alex's dreams intensify, and she has visions of her grandfather and his black-cloaked spirit-friend, Old Raven Man. Miles away, Lonny still mourns his mother's death. Years before, he and a friend had been digging in an Indian burial mound on land owned by Lonny's Métis stepfather when they uncovered a small skull and bones. Horrified, his mother had made them rebury the bones. Two days later, she died of a heart attack. Ever since, Lonny has been haunted by the belief that he caused her death. He too has vivid dreams and visions of spirits. When Alex reluctantly visits her inherited property, she meets Lonny, whose stepfather, it turns out, had sold the land to Alex's father. Seeing the property for the first time, Alex is shocked. "It was, in fact, the lake where she had dreamed about Grandpa and Old Raven Man fishing," Brooks writes. "Where they had flipped a huge radiant creature from the deep dark waters. Where she had floated down and down through darkness into the light inside her soul." Alex and Lonny are drawn together by their shared experiences and visions. Brooks, an award-winning writer, has created believable and sympathetic characters. The two teenagers have an air of fortitude and resilience about them as they struggle with the turmoil of adolescence and cope with their losses. Alex's mother is fiercely loving and supportive, and Lonny's stepfather is a gem, as caring and devoted as a birth father. Brooks' use of language is lyrical and conjures up beautiful images. The Indian's reverence for land, nature, and ancestors is an integral part of the novel, but the greatest pleasure comes from following the parallel lives of Alex and Lonny and their joint effort to release the weight of the past and look ahead to the future.
SEVEN BRAVE WOMEN, by Betsy Hearne, with illustrations by Bethanne Andersen. (Greenwillow, $15; grades K-6.) "In the old days, history books marked time by the wars men fought." So begins the introduction to this entrancing picture book by Hearne, a teacher of children's literature at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. We quickly see that this will not be such a book. "There are other ways to tell time," Hearne writes. "My mother does not believe that wars should be fought at all. She says history should be her story, too." This, then, is the story of seven women in the author's family going back to the Revolutionary War, women, Hearne tells us, "who made history by not fighting in wars." The book carries a strong message, but it is not a feminist or antiwar tract. It simply and gracefully suggests that history should be less defined by warriors than by everyday people who raise children, keep their faith, work hard, create, and help others. Hearne's forbears include a pioneer, a farmer, a doctor, an architect, a storyteller—all of them mothers. Although none of the women here appears in history books, all led remarkable lives and were brave in their own ways. The text is spare but, coupled with Andersen's fanciful paintings, gives an exacting portrait of each woman. "My great-great-great grandmother did great things," Hearne writes at the beginning of chapter one. "Elizabeth lived during the Revolutionary War, but she did not fight in it." Elizabeth, we find, was a Mennonite who came to America from Europe in a wooden sailboat with two small children and another on the way. She would have six more. Helen, another of Hearne's ancestors, lived during World War I, "but she did not fight in it." She went to medical school and then to India, where she started a hospital for women. "There were many diseases among poor women she treated," Hearne writes, "and my great-grandmother Helen died young." In the last chapter, we discover that the narrator is not an adult but a young girl. She has heard these stories about the women of her family from her mother, a professional storyteller who lived during the Vietnam War. What the child has learned from these women—and what young readers will learn from this book—is that there are a million ways to be brave and make history. Seven Brave Women belongs in every elementary school, the perfect companion to history texts that more often than not miss half the story.
MEAN MARGARET, by Tor Seidler, with illustrations by Jon Agee. (HarperCollins, $14.95; grades 3-6.) A fastidious woodchuck named Fred is dumbfounded when his wife drags home a lost, squalling, and disagreeable human child to their elegant burrow. Animal friends pitch in to share the burden in this hilarious tale made even more entertaining by Agee's whimsical black-and-white drawings.
THE NINE-TON CAT: Behind the Scenes at an Art Museum, by Peggy Thomson, with Barbara Moore. (Houghton Mifflin, in association with the National Gallery of Art, $14.95; all ages.) This book offers an intimate look at the operations of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. It goes behind the scenes to examine the museum's daily work, art-conservation methods, exhibition preparation, and much more. It's a useful tool for teachers and students about to embark on museum field trips and a fascinating read for anyone interested in the inner workings of a gallery.
THE LITTLE SHIPS: The Heroic Rescue at Dunkirk in World War II, by Louise Borden, with illustrations by Michael Foreman. (Simon & Schuster, $15; grades 3-5.) A gripping fictional account of a young girl and her father who set off in their fishing boat, along with an armada of other small vessels, to rescue Allied troops cornered on the beach at Dunkirk in 1940. Watercolors in blues, browns, and grays vividly show the dangers faced by the troops and their rescuers.
ECHOES OF THE ELDERS: The Stories and Paintings of Chief Lelooska, by Chief Lelooska. (DK Publishing, $24.95; all ages.) A master of the oral tradition, Chief Lelooska has written and illustrated five tales of the Kwakiutl Indians of British Columbia, Canada. The stories about animals, a witch, and a merman are each illustrated with brightly colored paintings that resemble woodcuts and recall figures from totem poles. A compact disc of Chief Lelooska narrating the tales accompanies the book.
THE DARK SIDE OF NOWHERE, by Neal Shusterman. (Little, Brown, $15.95; young adult.) Small-town life will never be the same for Jason after he is shown a strange glove that fires steel pellets and is invited to join a gang to learn combat fighting. He soon discovers that the people he has known all his life are literally "out of this world." This is an exciting science fiction novel with extraordinary twists and turns.
CRY BABY, by Ruth Brown. (Dutton, $14.99; grades K-2.) A whiny little girl, carrying her old worn blanket, tags after three older siblings as they traverse various obstacles on a walk through the English countryside. At first, the cry baby's sister and two brothers want nothing to do with her—in fact, they are cruel—but when her blanket snags on a bramble, things begin to change. Brown has written a tale of transformation and brought it to life with bold acrylic and watercolor paintings.
DAY OF THE DEAD, by Tony Johnston, with illustrations by Jeanette Winter. (Harcourt Brace, $14; grades K-2.)Don't let the title of this festive book about one of Mexico's most important holidays throw you off. The Day of the Dead is about the living and how they remember departed loved ones; there is nothing ghastly about it. The terse text and folkish paintings follow one family as it prepares a feast for the occasion. "The people," Johnston writes in an author's note, "dance, sing, and share memories of their loved ones, welcoming their spirits, who are thought to return briefly to take part in the celebration."
SMUDGE, by John A. Rowe. (North-South, $16.95; grades K-4.) When Smudge, a little black rat still in diapers, is lifted from his garden by a big bird with beady eyes, he begins a journey that takes him into the homes of many different animals—dogs, rabbits, fish, and others—all of whom abuse and ultimately abandon him. Through it all, Smudge remains resilient and in the end finds his way back to his own family. Rowe's quirky, vibrant paintings are a scream.
—Barbara Hiron and Blake Rodman