For Kids

April 01, 2000 8 min read

SAMMY KEYES AND THE RUNAWAY ELF,by Wendelin Van Draanen. (Alfred A. Knopf, $14.95; grades 4-7.) As any serious mystery fan knows, the only thing better than a good mystery is a good mystery series. The best, such as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe books or Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone volumes—A Is for Alibi and others—combine suspense, tight plotting, fine writing, and strong characters. These classics create rich worlds that rival what’s found in the finest science fiction or fantasy.

Unfortunately, I have never discovered such quality in mystery series for young readers—until now. Enter Sammy (Samantha) Keyes, the smartest, feistiest, bravest, and most heartbreakingly endearing 7th grade sleuth in fiction. As with all great private eyes, Sammy’s personal life is messy: Her mother, “the Lady Lana,” has run off to Hollywood to be discovered; all she knows of her father is a catcher’s mitt he left her. Sammy’s grandmother has taken her in and showers her with good sense and unconditional love, but Grams’ home is in the “Senior Highrise"—no kids allowed. This predicament makes for a life of secrecy that is excellent training for a budding Dick Tracy, as Sammy lives out of a dresser drawer and sneaks in and out of the building via the fire escape.

Despite such family turmoil, Sammy has great friends, including Marissa McKenze, who’s the trusty sidekick every great detective needs. Marissa combines the tenacity and grit of a game-winning pitcher with the occasional ditziness of, well, a 7th grader. There’s also Hudson Graham, a witty, wily, and well-read septuagenarian partial to emerald-green cowboy boots, vintage maroon Cadillacs, and Sammy’s Gram. And finally, there’s Sammy’s foil, a fellow 7th grader who is a vicious, back- biting gossip named—what else?—Heather. Van Draanen’s depiction of this red-haired beast is dead-on; the author is a teacher, so she’s probably intimately familiar with the type.

In Runaway Elf, the fourth installment in the Sammy Keyes series, Van Draanen outdoes herself, combining a classic Chandleresque plot—dognapping complicated by Sammy’s “client,” a poisonous and powerful grande dame—with a second story line about Sammy’s efforts to help a friend come to terms with the death of her father. The four Sammy Keyes books build on each other, deepening characters and relationships from one volume to the next. While each can stand alone, it’s best to read the series in order. The other three books are Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief, Sammy Keyes and the Skeleton Man, and Sammy Keyes and the Sisters of Mercy.

—Stephen Del Vecchio

WALLACE HOSKINS: The Boy Who Grew Down,by Cynthia Zarin, with illustrations by Martin Matje. (DK Ink, $16.95; grades 1-3.) Most little kids have developmental problems that in one way or another complicate their young lives, things that the children themselves might ignore if it weren’t for their hand-wringing parents. Some youngsters don’t talk much. Others consistently wet their beds. Still others just can’t seem to sit still for a minute.

For Wallace Hoskins, the central character in this entertaining new picture book, the problem is size. The boy is just plain small—very small. And then there is the matter of the fireman’s hat: he never takes it off. He wears it at meals, to school, in bath, even in bed. Wallace’s mother wrries about her son’s height and complains about the hat. His rather oblivious father, on the other hand, hardly seems to notice. “Don’t fuss, Gladys,” he says to his wife. “He’ll grow out of it.”

But the years pass, and Wallace doesn’t grow out of it. In fact, Wallace doesn’t grow at all—until the summer of his 8th year when the Hoskins family rents a cottage at the beach. At first, everything is wonderful—the sand, the sea, the sun. But then, out of the blue, Wallace’s mother makes an astonishing discovery: Her tiny son has grown two inches in two weeks. “Dramatic as these events might seem, they made little difference to Wallace,” notes Zarin, an acclaimed poet and author of two other children’s books. “He was used to being the size he was. But he was glad his mother was happy because he knew she worried about him.”

Soon, however, Wallace notices that something strange is happening: His legs seem to be getting longer but not the rest of him. Before long, his whole family is in a tizzy. Wallace, everyone realizes, is growing down, not up.

Although there is little mention of the fireman’s hat after the first few pages, we can’t help but notice, thanks to Matje’s marvelously quirky pen-and-watercolor illustrations, that Wallace still is never without it. But it’s not a good fit—the hat diminishes him; it obscures the world and him from it—and we begin to suspect that it might have something to do with Wallace’s peculiar problem. In the end, after lots of worry and a little magic that kids will find deliciously disgusting, the hat comes off, and Wallace emerges a perfectly happy, normal-sized boy with a bushy head of brown hair.

Zarin, with a strong assist from Matje, has crafted a refreshingly bizarre tale about a family’s ordeal with a child’s growing pains. Although perhaps not for the youngest children, it will certainly grab 1st through 3rd graders, who, like Wallace, are trying, by fits and starts, to make their way in the world. The story reminds us—children and adults alike—that kids grow up at different paces and in different ways. Though some require only our patience, others may need a gentle push.

—Blake Hume Rodman

THE TWO BULLIES,by Junko Morimoto. (Crown, $17; grades K-2.) Morimoto, a Japanese writer and illustrator, gives us a witty tale of two enormous strongmen—one from Japan, the other from China—each itching to prove that he can beat up the other. Big on bluster but short on brains, the two bullies scare each other away before their face-off. The story, adapted and translated from a Japanese tale, will grab kids’ attention, but be warned: Morimoto’s hilarious watercolors will have them rolling in the aisles. This little volume won picture-book-of-the-year honors in Australia, where the author lives.

LITTLE BUNNY ON THE MOVE,by Peter McCarty. (Henry Holt, $15.95; kindergarten.) With spare, lilting text and luminous illustrations made from pencil and a touch of watercolor, McCarty has accomplished something just short of a miracle: He has created a standout bunny book, one that’s warm and cute but not the least bit sappy. And it has a gentle message, to boot—it lets young readers know that even cute white rabbits are wild at heart. by Peter McCarty. (Henry Holt, $15.95; kindergarten.)has accomplished something just short of a miracle: He has created a standout bunny book, one that’s warm and cute but not the least bit sappy. And it has a gentle message, to boot—it lets young readers know that even cute white rabbits are wild at heart.

CRUSADER,by Edward Bloor. (Harcourt Brace, $17; young adult.)Ever since her mother’s brutal murder seven years ago, 15-year-old Roberta has shut out everything but her deadening routine of work and school. She emerges from this emotional coma only when the clues to a series of hate crimes point to the virtual-reality arcade owned by her father and uncle. Investigating, Roberta finds heroes and villains where she least expects them and, eventually, solves the deeper and more painful mystery of her mother’s death. Bloor, a former middle and high school teacher, writes with a fine eye for the details of teenagers’ lives and feelings.

THE MOUSE OF AMHERST,by Elizabeth Spires, with illustrations by Claire A. Nivola. (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $15; grades 2-5.) Before Emmaline, a white mouse, meets Emily Dickinson, she is “nothing more than a crumb gatherer, a cheese nibbler, a mouse-of-little-purpose.” This changes when she moves into the Dickinson residence and makes her home in a pleasant room in the wainscoting of the writer’s quiet upstairs bedroom. At first, Emmaline is fascinated but mystified by Dickinson’s constant scribbling. Then one day a gust of wind deposits a scrap of paper at her door, and she finds herself so moved by Dickinson’s poetry that she begins to write herself—discovering her own voice and deepest feelings in the process. This delightful, brief work is a deft and touching introduction to Dickinson and her poetry. But more than that, it is a testament to the power of words to change a life.

KING OF SHADOWS,by Susan Cooper. (McElderry Books, $16; grades 5 and up.) Sad Nat Field lost both parents before his 11th birthday. But he has found some solace in acting and the American Company of Boys, a troupe handpicked by a renowned director to perform A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the new Globe Theater in London. One night after rehearsals, Nat goes to bed feeling ill—and wakes up in 1599, as a member of Shakespeare’s own company where he plays Puck opposite the Bard himself in the original production of the play. Cooper’s story is so fully realized that the reader does not simply suspend disbelief—he desperately wants this tale of the healing power of love to be true.

BLANCA’S FEATHER,by Antonio Hernandez Madrigal, with illustrations by Gerardo Suzan. (Rising Moon, $15.95; grades K-2.) It’s October 4th, St. Francis of Assisi Day, and Blanca wants to take her pet hen to the church for a blessing. In Mexico, many people believe that animals blessed on this special day will be protected for the coming year from disease and predators. But Blanca has a problem: She can’t find her hen anywhere—only one of her feathers. Will the village priest agree to bless the plume as a substitute for the pet? Madrigal, author of the popular Erandi’s Braids, has written another engaging story that both teaches and inspires. And Suzan’s dazzling folkish illustrations are the perfect compliment.

—Blake Hume Rodman And Stephen Del Vecchio