THE WOLVING TIMEby Patrick Jennings (Scholastic, $15.95; grades 7 and up) In this provocative tale of a young shepherd in late-16th-century France, Jennings combines elements of historic, realistic, and science fiction to portray a character teetering between boyhood and manhood—as well as humanity and beastliness.
Laszlo Emberek, who is at the age when “one’s face flames with red blemishes,” enjoys the pastoral life of a shepherd. He also longs for the day when, like his parents, he will be able to become a wolf at will. He describes his mother’s transformation one afternoon: She “fell forward, her arms outstretched; before her hands hit the ground, they were paws—large, heavy, padded, and clawed. Her skin was no longer bare to the elements, but protected by thick silver fur.”
Laszlo knows the human-wolf life is a dangerous one. Men like the malicious priest Père Raoul persecute those who are even perceived to be different. He labels them witches, locks them in his dungeon, and burns them at the stake. The wealthy landowners, meanwhile, turn a blind eye because Raoul’s zealotry keeps the peasants in line. So when the priest’s ward, Muno, discovers Laszlo’s secret, the boy panics. However, Muno is desperate to escape from Raoul’s guardianship, so the two make a deal: Laszlo won’t tell about her running away if Muno promises not to report what she saw.
But Muno’s attempt fails. Laszlo’s concern for her well-being draws him into village life, and he becomes increasingly sickened by the people’s willingness to support the priest; at one point, they even gather wood for an execution pyre. “What person,” he wonders, “would want to witness such things?” When the day arrives for Laszlo either to accept the wolf within himself or remain simply human, the decision is easy.
Although a bit grisly at times, Jennings’ novel sensitively captures the horror of the French Inquisition (which the author cites as an inspiration in his note), the confusion of adolescence, and the consequences of defying authority. In addition, Laszlo’s efforts to save escapees from the priest’s dungeon infuse the story with hope.
Most important, by carefully balancing the evil Père Raoul with Laszlo’s compassionate mother, Jennings builds a strong case for tolerating people of all kinds. “You must remember,” she explains to Laszlo, “that the men who pursue us...have lost touch with their nature. They believe they are superior to it, that God has made them so, but I see God more in the leaves of a tree, or in the eyes of a wolf, than I do in such murderous men. I do not believe it is God that motivates their actions. It is fear.”
This captivating and gracefully narrated tale, which includes imaginative descriptions of Laszlo’s experiences as a wolf, should be reserved for mature readers. Raoul’s verbal and physical attack on four alleged “minions of Hell,” for example, is particularly difficult to read, as is the rather gruesome climax.
In this intriguing fictional account of patriot Patrick Henry’s family, Rinaldi addresses women’s roles, family life, and mental disease during the Revolutionary period. Much has been written about Henry, who campaigned for action against the British and exclaimed, “Give me liberty or give me death,” but less is known about his family. In 1771, Henry’s wife suffered a mental breakdown and was confined to the basement. In Rinaldi’s story, the distraught woman confides to her 7-year-old daughter, Anne, the name of the Henry child who will inherit the madness. Anne keeps the secret but, as she watches events unfold, constantly wonders, “When do you tell the truth and when do you lie?” Henry plays a supporting role as Rinaldi splits the narration between feisty Anne and her very proper 16-year-old sister, Patsy. The structure allows Rinaldi to highlight the limited role of colonial women and explore the possible effects of Mrs. Henry’s illness on her six children. According to her author’s note, Rinaldi wrote this book “to illuminate what [Henry’s] sacrifice of time and commitment to his country cost him. And his family.”
ALMOST FOREVER, by Maria Testa. (Candlewick, $14.99; grades 3- 8.)
A year can feel like forever—especially to a 6-year-old whose father has been sent to war. In this slim lyric novel comprising 29 poems, Testa sensitively portrays a child coping with life after her father ships out. The heroine explains insimple, direct verse, “No one/ looked at me/ any differently/ at school/the next morning./ No one/ asked me questions/ or said anything/special/ at all.” But she knows life has changed: She feels guilty enjoying Christmas, wonders at the demonstrators in the park, and worries about forgetting her father. Although Testa’s story takes place during the Vietnam War,Almost Forever certainly will appeal to children with parents serving in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. Her accessible verse also will warm children to poetry and introduce them to a new form of expressing their feelings.
THE STORY OF A SEAGULL AND THE CAT WHO TAUGHT HER TO FLY, by Luis Sepúlveda, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden, illustrated by Chris Sheban. (Arthur A. Levine, $15.95; grades 3-6.)
As his owner leaves for vacation, Zorba looks forward to sunning himself peacefully along the port. But the big black cat’s rest is soon interrupted by a dying seagull. The bird, who unknowingly dove into an oil slick while looking for fish, makes Zorba promise to protect the egg and teach her chick to fly. A tender, humorous tale ensues as Zorba and his book-loving feline friend, Einstein, rely on encyclopedia sketches of Leonardo da Vinci’s flying machine to teach little Lucky to fly. In the process, they, too, get an education. Zorba explains to Lucky, “With you we’ve learned something that makes us very proud: We’ve learned to appreciate and respect and love someone who’s different from us.” Translated from Spanish, Sepúlveda’s story contains some challenging vocabulary that might deter reluctant readers.