THE KIN: Suth’s Story, by Peter Dickinson. (Grosset and Dunlap, hardcover $14.99, paperback $3.99; grades 5 and up.) In this gripping story, six orphaned children fight to survive in a hostile, prehistoric world. Having witnessed a marauding tribe slaughter the men and carry off the women of their Moonhawk Kin, Suth and Noli gather their younger siblings and set off on an arduous trek to find a new Good Place. Surrounded by danger, Suth and Noli become the family’s protectors. In one episode, they manage to stone to death a wild fox, a feat that changes Suth: “He felt different. . . . He had done something. He had killed food. These others, they needed him. Without him, they would die.”
The children eventually discover a lush valley, but they are found by people of the Monkey Kin and forced to live with them. Though Suth chafes at tribal rules that declare him too young for the tribe’s hunting parties, he finally wins acceptance after a near-fatal fight with a leopard. Still, the children remain loyal to their roots and are guided by a Moonhawk goddess who visits Noli in her dreams.
In alternating chapters, Dickinson includes tales of the First Ones, sacred animals who created humans and the First Good Place. In an author’s note, he explains that these stories, like our own creation myths, are inventions of Suth’s people “to explain how they came to be here and why things happen.”
Most striking are the portraits of the characters, particularly Suth, who tries desperately to put aside his fears and indecision to become the head of the blended family. But the entire book, the first in a planned Kin series, is an imaginative tour de force.
G IS FOR GOOGOL: A Math Alphabet Book, by David M. Schwartz, with illustrations by Marissa Moss. (Tricycle Press, $15.95; grades 2 and up.) Just how big is a googol? And what about a zillion? Former math majors probably know the answers, but if you don’t--and even if you do--this book is for you.
If you’re thinking, Oh no, not another alphabet book, don’t be put off. The alphabet is simply a device to explore a wonderful array of mathematical topics, concepts, terms, and problems. We soon learn, though, that at least one entry--"D is for Diamond"--isn’t mathematical at all. “Diamond shouldn’t be in this book,” Schwartz writes. “There are diamonds in rings, and there are diamonds on baseball fields, but there are no diamonds in math.” What we think of as a diamond shape, he explains, is nothing more than a tilted square or rhombus. “We put diamond in this book so you would know it doesn’t belong here.”
Obviously, Schwartz isn’t just teaching; he’s having fun, too. And that’s what makes this book so enthralling. Teachers and students of all ages--well, perhaps not the very youngest--will want to turn each page to see what’s next. Moss’ watercolor and pen-and-ink illustrations complement the text, but Schwartz is the star here. With thought-provoking clarity and humor, he takes us from “abacus” and “binary” to “obtuse” and “probability” and on through “tessellate” and “unit.”
The book loses some momentum, though, when it comes to W, which unfortunately is for “When are we ever gonna use this stuff, anyway?” It’s perhaps a clever way to work in such a discussion, but the section offers nothing particularly insightful and seems out of place in this otherwise wonderful book.
So, what exactly is a “googol”? It’s a number--a one followed by 100 zeros--invented by mathematician Edward Kasner and named, according to Schwartz, by Kasner’s 9-year-old nephew, Milton Sirotta. “It’s more than the number of grains of sand in the world,” the author writes. “There isn’t a googol of anything, anywhere.” And what about a zillion? Go read the book.
GOGOL’S COAT, by Cary Fagan, with illustrations by Regolo Ricci. (Tundra Books, $14.95; grades 3-5.) Long ago in a faraway country, a poor young scribe spent his savings on a wondrous coat, only to have it snatched off his back. This lyrical adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s classic tale, “The Overcoat,” is graced with sumptuous oil paintings and a more uplifting ending.
RULES OF THE ROAD, by Joan Bauer. (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $15.99; young adult.) The new owner of a driver’s license, 16-year-old Jenna agrees with some trepidation to chauffeur her crusty, 73-year-old boss in an enormous Cadillac on a summer inspection tour of Gladstone shoe stores from Chicago to Dallas. The journey, filled with hilarious encounters and moving moments, gives Jenna a new sense of maturity and worth.
THE TOWN MOUSE AND THE COUNTRY MOUSE, retold and illustrated by Bernadette Watts. (North-South, $15.95; grades K-2.) Curious about the city, a country mouse journeys to town to sample life more exotic than her own. There she meets a town mouse, who is the perfect host. Later, the town mouse visits her new country friend, who treats her to the pleasures of rural life. Both are intrigued by the other’s world but agree that home is best. Watts does a fine job retelling this Aesop fable, but her charming paintings, reminiscent of the illustrations of fellow Brit Beatrix Potter, are the real attraction.
VIRTUAL WORLD, by Chris Westwood. (Viking, $15.99; young adult.) When Jack plays a mysterious new virtual-reality game called Silicon Sphere, his initial enthusiasm turns to horror when he and a friend are dragged into a world controlled by a madman. Science fiction fans are in for a trick and a treat.
RAVEN IN A DOVE HOUSE, by Andrea Davis Pinkney. (Harcourt Brace, $16; young adult.) During her annual summer visit with Aunt Ursa and cousin Foley, Nell gets coerced into hiding a stolen .25-caliber pistol that is crucial to Foley’s plans to run away from home with his friend. This is a memorable story of a loving family in conflict.
CAT UP A TREE, by John and Ann Hasett. (Houghton Mifflin, $15; grades K-2.) Every time Nana Quimby tries to get someone to rescue the growing number of cats stuck in her tree, she gets the same response: Sorry, we can’t be bothered. She calls the firehouse and police station, the post office and zoo. She even rings City Hall, which tells her to “call back if you need a sign that says, ‘Danger, Look Up for Falling Cats.’ ” In the end, Nana herself rescues the cats, 35 of them in all, and finds a clever way to repay those who refused to help.
FIRE, BED & BONE, by Henrietta Branford. (Candlewick Press, $15.99; grades 5-7.) An old hunting dog movingly narrates the story of his life and that of his humble but loving owners, a family caught up in England’s 14th-century Peasants’ Revolt. The graceful language and vivid descriptions of the period make this a memorable historical novel.
--Barbara Hiron and Blake Rodman