Kids’ Books

March 01, 2004 5 min read
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Recommended | Noteworthy


by Zilpha Snyder
(Delacorte, $15.95; grades 4-7)

Everyone knows the Hobsons. A successful stockbroker, a TV-savvy lawyer, and six children tend to attract attention. Inside the Hobson home, however, attention is the one thing each kid craves: Quincy is a science whiz, the twins are sports superstars, Victoria is an accomplished pianist, and Gussie is the cute baby. However, Alexandra, or Xandra, as she prefers to be called, chooses to remain inconspicuous.

Short on brains, athleticism, and looks—or so she thinks—Xandra opts for the companionship of animals over that of her siblings. As the narrator explains, “There was something warm and cozy-sounding about ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ that had very little to do with the way Xandra felt about her fellow Hobsons.” Nestled in the back of the basement, behind the furnace, Xandra has set up a makeshift shelter, where she’s nursed a variety of critters, including a baby skunk and a barn owl, back to health.

One afternoon, she rescues a large white bird that hunters were pursuing in the woods. Something about the animal—the way the blood from its gunshot wound seems to disappear, for example—convinces Xandra that it’s an enchanted creature. Her suspicions are confirmed the following morning when she checks on the injured bird and all that remains of it is “one long, softly quivering white feather.”

Xandra shares what she’s found with Belinda, “probably the weirdest person” in their 7th grade language arts class, who proclaims the plume a Key to the Unseen. Standing in the space behind the furnace, she instructs Xandra to touch the feather to her forehead.

Suddenly Xandra’s senses are heightened, and she notices the sounds and smells of all the animals she’s kept there. The sensations, however, soon become monsterlike forms, with red eyes and sharp teeth, that attack her. By touching the feather to her head again, Xandra escapes the nightmarish experience.

She longs to understand why the Unseen, which both girls expected to be an enjoyable place, turned evil. Belinda’s grandfather, an enigmatic old man whom the girl describes as a “special kind of thinker,” tells Xandra that, like a mirror, the Unseen reflects aspects of the person who holds the Key. This news startles Xandra, and she becomes consumed with the monsters.

In her foreword, Zilpha Keatley Snyder acknowledges that humans have limited sense perceptions and wonders what “entities might exist all around us.” With The Unseen, the three-time Newbery Honor winner explores that unknown world by penning a magical and suspenseful, yet still relevant, tale. Xandra’s experiences with the Key, Belinda, and the grandfather unexpectedly open her eyes to the interactions she has with her family. Her siblings, from whom she’s isolated herself, are really no different than she is. Whenever the Hobson adults miss dinner, for example, all six children share the same bitter disappointment.

In opening herself up to her brothers and sisters, Xandra learns a bit more about the person she is and the person she really wants to be, and she comes to appreciate the Unseen in a far different light.


by John Son
(Orchard, $16.95; grades 5-8)

“It didn’t make sense to me,” Jin-Han Park says, “that people who didn’t want to be treated differently because of their color could turn around and do the same thing to other people. On the other hand, I knew I wasn’t any different.” This tension between how Jin-Han should act and how he does act eloquently sums up the theme of Finding My Hat. Part of a series that features authors of diverse backgrounds writing about their American experiences, Son’s book draws heavily from his childhood, tracing a Korean American boy’s life as his parents move him from Chicago to Memphis to Houston. While they try to create a good life for Jin-Han, he tries on different hats, literally and figuratively, hoping to fulfill his parents’ dreams for him and still be a regular American kid. Son humorously weaves elements of the two cultures when, for instance, he describes the Parks burying plastic trash cans in the backyard, mimicking the Korean use of stone jars to store food. Although told through a string of vignettes, the story is seamless and engaging.

by Angela Johnson
(Dial, $14.99; grades 3-7)

Eight-year-old Lila can see and hear things in the dark that others don’t notice, but she can’t recall the warmth of the sun on her skin. As a baby, she was diagnosed with a rare allergy to the sun. Now she plays by moonlight, spending her days inside, protected by ultraviolet-blocking windows. Instead of going to school with other kids, Lila is homeschooled by her mother, although her friend David shares comic books with her. Her older sister, Monk, also often takes her on night drives. But Lila has two special friends who wear tutus and wings and come out at night when no one else is around. With these girls, she hatches a plan to dance in the sun—that is, until she accepts the truth about who she really is. The award-winning Johnson pens a sensitive and imaginative story about friends, family, courage, and, as Lila confides to readers, “secrets and light.”

by Rodman Philbrick
(Blue Sky Press, $16.95; grades 4-7)

Before she died, Skiffy’s mother told the 12-year-old to always “think smart,” “speak true,” and “never give up"—and to take care of his father. That’s a tall order, especially since Skiff Sr. refuses to leave the couch, turn off the TV, or put away his beer. So for months Skiffy faithfully bails water from the Mary Rose, the family’s neglected fishing boat, by himself. After it sinks, the boy raises the boat and replaces the rotted planks, but he learns that repairing the flooded engine will cost $5,000. Skiffy thinks that catching a bluefin tuna will solve his problems. He sneaks out at night, loads his own 10-foot skiff with supplies and a “borrowed” harpoon, and sails 30 miles from shore. His mom’s three rules not only help Skiffy survive in open water but also prove good advice for everyday life—as Skiff Sr. finally comes to understand.

—Jennifer Pricola


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