ST. MICHAEL’S SCALES, by Neil Connelly. (Arthur A. Levine, $16.95; grades 7 and up.)
Although he uses a Catholic high school in Allentown, Pennsylvania, as the backdrop for his hero’s torment, Connelly unravels a surprisingly accessible story about a guilt- ridden teen who sees suicide as his only chance for setting things right. In fact, the religious overtones serve only to emphasize the feelings of self-reproach experienced by any depressed kid.
Fifteen-year-old Keegan Flannery feels responsible for the death, at birth, of his twin, Michael, as well as the subsequent rupturing of their family. As a 10-year-old, Keegan stood helplessly on the beach while his mother, who never recovered from the loss of her son, tried to drown herself. Shortly after, Keegan’s oldest brother ran away, and their district attorney father began spending more time at the office—and the bar.
The teen’s guilt manifests itself in vivid delusions involving his dead brother. “Seeing him there, standing over my grave,” Keegan explains, “I understood that Michael was supposed to have lived and I was supposed to have died.” Keegan believes he’s “upset the balance of God’s plan,” and his brother is offering him a chance to redeem himself by committing suicide in two weeks, on the day before his 16th birthday.
What Keegan doesn’t know is how he’s supposed to die, and he imagines myriad possibilities. In one of the book’s most effective scenes, while his classmates at Our Lady of Perpetual Help read aloud the descriptions of the Catholic martyrs, Keegan relives each of their deaths— from Joan of Arc’s burning to St. Catherine’s beheading. He admits: “For 15 minutes, I died one death after the next alongside the all-time greatest martyrs of the faith, and even though each one seemed more real and more gruesome and more frightening, with each heroic death I felt something growing inside me. A purpose.”
In the meantime, Keegan believes he must atone for his perceived sins against Michael and their mother. An opportunity presents itself when Coach Morgan asks the scrawny boy to fill in for a sick lightweight on the school’s wrestling team. Being repeatedly pounded to the ground seems a fitting punishment, so Keegan agrees.
Connelly parallels Keegan’s inner turmoil with his struggles on the mat. During his first practice, the teen barely fights back, and in an early competition he asks the ref to call the match even before his shoulders are pinned. Keegan just gives up, as he plans to do with life. And the pre-match weighing-in ritual resembles the scene he envisions awaiting him at death: “I closed my eyes and saw Michael on a cloud, standing side by side with St. Michael and his golden scales; they were waiting for . . . something to tip the balance toward either redemption or damnation.” But wrestling and the camaraderie of his teammates also gives Keegan the strength to fight his delusions.
With the Catholic school setting, Connelly cleverly highlights Keegan’s all- consuming guilt, as well as the unalterable consequences of suicide, without sounding preachy. The site actually provides some levity, relieving the heaviness of the ominous theme. As a zealous nun painstakingly lists the patron saints, for example, Keegan muses: “Sister Teresita told us the list was important because if you forget a saint’s name and pray to the wrong one, it doesn’t count. I guess it’s like dialing a wrong number.”
In the end, Keegan chooses a wiser course of action: talking to his father. But his gradual realizations that suicide only causes more pain and that no one blames him for Michael’s death make this a worthwhile read. First-time novelist Connelly convincingly conveys the small triumphs of a lonely kid who discovers a few reasons to go on.
THE WRIGHT BROTHERS: A Flying Start, by Elizabeth MacLeod. (Kids Can Press, $6.95; grades 3-7.)
During the span of his adult life, celebrated aviator Charles Lindbergh counted among his friends both Orville Wright, the first man to fly an airplane, and Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. What’s startling about this fact has less to do with Lindbergh than the historical proximity of his two remarkable colleagues. Manned flight has become such a ubiquitous part of the human experience that it is easy to forget how far we’ve come in such a short time. Indeed, the subjects of this wonderful picture book, Orville and his older brother Wilbur, made their brief but momentous first flights at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, just 100 years ago next year.
Clearly timed to get a jump on the centennial, this handsome, succinctly written book provides a perfect introduction for elementary school kids wanting to know more about the brothers and the origins of manned flight. MacLeod, who has written two previous children’s biographies—one of Alexander Graham Bell, the other of Lucy Maud Montgomery, author of Anne of Green Gables—covers lots of ground here in little space. The general scope of the book covers the brothers’ lives, from 1867 to 1912 in Wilbur’s case and 1871 to 1948 in Orville’s, with brief interludes for important historical background on other pioneers of flight. Naturally MacLeod focuses most of her attention on the approximately 15 years the brothers devoted to building, testing, perfecting, and finally selling their airplanes.
She tells the Wrights’ story chronologically in 13 short chapters, each a double-page spread in length, with text and some marginalia on the left-hand page and a collage of pictures, maps, diagrams, documents, and quotes on the right. Small, engraved-looking images of Wilbur and Orville appear throughout the book, with interesting and sometimes amusing asides in dialogue bubbles.
While all this makes for a rather busy page, the overall effect is never jumbled or chaotic. And the different graphic elements, captions, and quotes give readers many interesting bite-size details that would otherwise have cluttered MacLeod’s direct, clean narrative. One diagram shows how the brothers steered their earliest planes by shifting their weight and changing the warp of the canvas wings. Another explains Bernoulli’s principle, the basis for all flight. Readers also learn that Orville did the cooking at Kitty Hawk and that the nights there were so cold—their first flights took place on December 17—they had to sleep in their coats, shoes, and hats. A small caption on the final page informs us that the Apollo 11 astronauts carried cloth from the wing of the brothers’ first plane when they landed on the moon in 1969.
Surprisingly, MacLeod includes next to nothing about the Wrights’ home lives, though she does tell us that Orville was “devastated” when Wilbur caught typhoid and died at age 45. “His partner of so many years was suddenly gone,” she writes. Three years later, Orville sold their airplane company. MacLeod also notes that Orville “was greatly saddened” by the way planes were used during the two world wars. “I don’t have any regrets about my part in the invention of the airplane,” he once said, “though no one could deplore more than I do the destruction it has caused.”
A strong biographical overview, this volume would be a wonderful resource for any elementary classroom. The straight-ahead prose is perfect for reading aloud. But for kids to get the most from the book, they will need to pore over every spread themselves.
—Blake Hume Rodman
STONER & SPAZ,
by Ron Koertge. (Candlewick Press, $15.99; grades 9 and up.)
A 16-year-old with cerebral palsy, Ben Bancroft escapes loneliness and an overprotective grandmother at the Rialto Theater, where he enjoys classic movies in the concealing darkness. Then one afternoon, Colleen Minou, the well-tattooed school druggie, stumbles in and falls asleep on his shoulder. Although an odd pair, they strike up a convincing friendship. Ben likes Colleen’s straight talk, admitting: “Nobody talks about my disability. Nobody ever makes a joke about it. They talk toward me and pretend I’m like everybody else. Better, actually. Brave and strong. A plucky lad.” Their blossoming romance gives Ben courage to create a documentary film called High School Confidential. And after hours of interviewing peers, he realizes that his isolation is the result of nothing but his own self-deprecating attitude. In this humorous and heartwarming novel, Koertge vibrantly portrays two loners, revealed entirely through witty and dead-on teenage banter.
DUCK ON A BIKE, by David Shannon. (Blue Sky, $15.95; grades K-1).
When it comes to picture books, the best stories can fall flat if the illustrations fail to captivate. But when the art is great, a trifle of a narrative can become a winner by association. Such is the case with this title from Shannon—acclaimed author-illustrator of No, David!, A Bad Case of Stripes, and others—about a duck who one day decides to try riding a bike. As he wobbles around the barnyard gaining confidence, other animals make comments about his antics, many of them derisive. But when several kids ride up and abandon their bikes on the grass, none of the other animals can resist the opportunity to try it, too. This silliness is fine and good, but it’s Shannon’s lively, full-spread paintings that give the book its humor and character. Working with a palette of bright, rich colors and shifting perspective from page to page, he has created something special.
IN PLAIN SIGHT, by Carol Otis Hurst. (Walter Lorraine Books, $15; grades 5-9.)
Eleven-year-old Sarah Corbin idolizes her dreamer father but can’t always relate to her sensible mother. When Father leaves Massachusetts in 1849 to try his luck at California gold, she’s devastated, but Mother stoically takes over the farm and even works in a nearby factory to keep the family afloat. Wanting to help, Sarah quits school to keep house and care for her two young siblings. Planting gardens, making soap, bandaging scraped knees, and other chores force her to mature quickly. So when the barn catches fire, she thinks nothing of running in to save her brother. In the following weeks, Mother devotedly nurses her daughter’s wounds, while Sarah slowly recognizes the strength of her mother’s quiet determination and the foolishness of her father’s adventures. This very readable novel approaches the famed gold rush from a refreshing perspective, offering both historical context and life lessons. In a surprising ending, Sarah realizes that parents are fallible and love can be expressed in many ways.
WOLF ON THE FOLD, by Judith Clarke. (Front Street, $16.95; grades 5 and up.)
In the first and title story of this collection, Clarke introduces Kenny Sinclair, whose family she follows for three more generations. In 1935, with economic depression raging in Australia, Kenny’s father suddenly dies, setting the 14-year-old off on a desperate search to find work in a factory. Along the way, he’s attacked by a stranger but manages to escape by remaining calm and reciting to himself a poem by Lord Byron: “The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold/ And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold.” These lines, more than the familial characters, tie Clarke’s provocative stories together. In each, a character faces some form of wolf—be it a psychological threat, such as the frustration of being marginalized for one’s ethnicity, or a physical danger, such as nuclear war. Although the various children often speak too wisely for their years, Clarke skillfully employs their innocent voices to convey compassion and tolerance.
FRIDA, by Jonah Winter, with illustrations by Ana Juan. (Arthur A. Levine, $16.95; grades K-1.)
This brief but soulful biography of the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo focuses on her formative years, which were defined by polio, contracted in 1914 at age 7, and a crippling accident several years later that left her in constant pain. During her long convalescence, Kahlo began to paint, drawing on her own experiences and images from the surrounding culture. Winter, who has written several biographies for kids, offers few other details from the artist’s life. There is no mention of her radical politics or turbulent marriage to muralist Diego Rivera. Winter’s intention, it seems, is to show how Kahlo persevered, despite physical hardships, to become one of the most acclaimed artists of her time. Juan’s bright, surrealistic illustrations, filled with fanciful creatures and objects from Mexican folk art, give the described events a dreamy, sensual feel. Although many of Kahlo’s own paintings are too disturbing for young viewers, Winter and Juan set the perfect tone for this age group, providing a tender introduction to a woman whose artistic stature has only grown since her death nearly half a century ago.
AUNT MINNIE AND THE TWISTER, by Mary Skillings Prigger, with illustrations by Betsy Lewin. (Clarion, $15; grades K-3.)
What is it about tornadoes that kids can’t resist? Ever since Dorothy’s famous journey to Oz, youngsters have been scared to death of twisters, yet they can’t quite look away. Their unwitting fascination will no doubt draw them to this fun book, a sequel to Prigger and Lewin’s popular 1999 collaboration, Aunt Minnie McGranahan, about an elderly spinster who inherits nine nieces and nephews. The first half of the new volume describes how Minnie and her adopted family spend each season working together on her farm. The second half recounts the spring day a twister hits and how they deal with the shocking aftermath. It’s an entertaining story—simply illustrated in ink and watercolors—intended to delight, not scare.
—Jennifer Pricola and Blake Hume Rodman