A CORNER OF THE UNIVERSE, by Ann M. Martin. (Scholastic, $15.95; grades 7 and up.)
For every kid, there comes a time when life turns on its head and irrevocably changes. For 12-year-old Hattie Owen, it’s the summer she meets the uncle she never knew she had. “And forever after,” she explains in the book’s prologue, “I will think of events as Before Adam or After Adam.”
As the summer of 1960 starts, Hattie looks forward to visiting the library and steering clear of the catty girls from her school. It’s not that she doesn’t have friends or know how to have fun. But she resists her grandmother’s attempts to dress her up for fancy cotillions and her mother’s maddening entreaties to be more social.
Then Hattie meets Adam, her 22-year-old uncle who’s been at a special school nearly all her life and who can recite lines from every I Love Lucy episode. She can’t understand why he’s been kept a secret, or why her parents attribute his long absence, in whispers, only to “mental problems.”
She’s also intrigued by the connection she and Adam share. He understands Hattie and doesn’t try to change her. So, she confesses to him: “People walk down our street and people drive down it and people ride their bicycles down it, and all of them, even the ones I know, could be from another planet. And I’m a visiting alien.”
She worries that Adam will laugh, but he finishes her thought, saying, “And aliens don’t belong anywhere...except in their own little corners of the universe.”
What’s more, he shares his secret “circus trick.” (Tell him any date, and he can immediately report what day of the week it fell on.)
Even Hattie, however, concedes that her uncle’s behavior is erratic. “Adam is something of a train...I think, barreling along,” she explains. “He can come to a screeching stop, though, at any moment.” He feels slighted when he’s handed a Shirley Temple while other adults sip alcoholic drinks. Yet, he uncouthly reaches his fist into the glass, retrieving the cherry and spilling ginger ale everywhere.
When Nana scolds Adam, a grown-up capable of walking across town alone, for not telling where he’s going, Hattie feels sorry for him. But she’s horrified the morning he saunters down her street clad only in pajama pants.
Adam is not the only friend Hattie makes that summer. When a traveling carnival comes to town, she immediately hits it off with Leila, the Pretzel Woman’s daughter. The girls spend their days eating hot dogs, going on rides, and talking about books. They even draw Adam into their fun, convincing him one night to sneak out of Nana’s house and join them at the fair. Hattie believes her uncle should be treated as normal, but her poor judgment has grave consequences: When he tries to jump from a car atop the stuck Ferris Wheel, Hattie realizes there’s a part of him she can never understand.
Martin gracefully weaves the themes of friendship, family, and love into an engaging and sensitive novel. Her ending might shock and sadden some, but it enables Hattie to demonstrate a newfound strength and confidence. Through the unique character of Adam, Martin offers Hattie, and all middle school readers, a poignant message about life and self: Make the most of both.
SALADIN: Noble Prince of Islam, by Diane Stanley. (HarperCollins, $16.99; grades 2-6.)
The children’s literature market has been inundated over the past six months with picture-book biographies of notable historical figures. Titles highlightedin recent issues of this magazine include bios of Abraham Lincoln, Anne Frank, Waterhouse Hawkins, the Wright Brothers, and Frida Kahlo. But this handsome volume—the 11th in an acclaimed series of biographies written and illustrated by Stanley—is the cream of the crop and among the more topical.
One of the most revered historical figures of the Islamic world, Saladin was the Muslim leader who recaptured the Holy Lands, most specifically Jerusalem, from Christian crusaders toward the end of the 12th century. He is perhaps best known in the West for turning back the forces of Richard the Lion-Hearted, who tried to regain control of the region during the Third Crusade.
Beginning with a short introduction describing the first two crusades, Stanley quickly proceeds with Saladin’s fascinating life story, from his birth in a town on the Tigris River in 1138 to his death 55 years later in Damascus. As she tells it, Saladin’s rise to power was largely the result of being in the right place at the right time. It was certainly fortuitous for the people of the Middle East. If the first Christian crusade succeeded because the Arab world in the late 11th century was fractured, the third failed because Saladin united the region and mobilized a unified force against the invaders.
Although the broad cast of characters is overwhelming in spots, Stanley does a fine job relating the events of Saladin’s reign, providing a good dose of historical context and detail but not so much that it dulls the narrative. She divides her account into 20 chapters, each a two-page spread, with text on one side and an illustration on the other. Inspired by Islamic art of the time, these bright, stylized drawings—many are truly magnificent—give readers a strong visual sense of places and events.
In the end, Stanley portrays Saladin not just as a great military leader but also as a wise, compassionate man who “never went back on his word.”
She doesn’t, however, have much good to say about the crusaders, who brought only bloodshed and turmoil to the Holy Land. Their arrival, she writes, introduced “a shadow of hatred and mistrust” that still remains in the region today.
Because there are so many new picture-book biographies, it’s worth highlighting a few others. They Called Her Molly Pitcher (by Anne Rockwell, with illustrations by Cynthia von Buhler; Knopf, $15.95; grades K-3) is an inspiring account of a woman who carried water to the Continental Army during the Battle of Monmouth in 1778. A Hero and the Holocaust(by David A. Adler, with illustrations by Bill Farnsworth; Holiday House, $16.95; grades 1-3) tells the story of Janusz Korczak, a Polish doctor and writer who ran a Jewish orphanage inside the Warsaw Ghetto. Degas and the Dance(by Susan Goldman Rubin; Abrams, $17.95; grades K-3) is a behind-the-scenes look at the impressionist’s famous ballet paintings, illustrated with more than 30 of his works. And Paul Revere’s Midnight Ride(by Stephen Krensky, with illustrations by Greg Harlin; HarperCollins, $15.99; grades K-2) is an exquisitely illustrated account of the night that made Revere famous.
—Blake Hume Rodman
NEW YORK’S BRAVEST, by Mary Pope Osborne, with illustrations by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher. (Knopf, $15.95; grades K-1.)
Author of the popular Magic Treehouse series for young readers, Osborne relates a yarn about a legendary 19th-century New York City fireman whose enormous stature—he stood eight feet tall—was a great asset in putting out fires and saving citizens. Like Johnny Appleseed and other mythic American figures, the character is loosely based on a real-life individual, in this case a man named Mose Humphreys. Stories of his heroics abound, but for this book Osborne draws on her own imagination, to add, in her own words, “a new chapter to the Mose legend,” one that she hopes will convey to youngsters “the courage and strength of firefighters throughout history.” Johnson and Francher’s bold, sepia-toned illustrations manage to both animate and dignify the author’s simple but charming story. The book is dedicated to the memory of the New York firefighters who died on September 11.
THE FANTASTIC JOURNEY OF PIETER BRUEGEL, by Anders C. Shafer. (Dutton, $18.99; grades 1-3.)
In the mid-1500s, a young draftsman who was to become the famous Renaissance painter Bruegel the Elder traveled from Antwerp in Northern Europe to Rome. Certainly it was a life-altering experience—Bruegel was in his early 20s when he set out—but little is known about the trip. What Shafer has done here is to imagine what the journey must have been like, based largely on Bruegel’s later artwork. He relates the young painter’s story through a series of 17 diary entries made over the course of the two-year trip. Each describes encounters and adventures along the way: Bruegel evades thieves, crosses the Alps, stays with an alchemist, witnesses a battle, encounters the plague, and, in Rome, meets the great Michelangelo himself. (“He draws and sculpts like an angel,” Bruegel writes, “but stinks like a monkey.”) In the end, this fun book is less a portrait of the man than a creatively told and richly illustrated tour for kids of 16th-century Europe. The last four pages offer a rich sampling of Bruegel’s exquisitely detailed drawings and paintings.
RUBY’S WISH, by Shirin Yim Bridges, with illustrations by Sophie Blackall. (Chronicle Books, $15.95; grades K-2.)
The title character in this handsome and engaging picture book is one of a hundred children living in a huge family compound somewhere in China during the early years of the 20th century. Although their grandfather, the family patriarch, provides a basic education for all his young grandchildren, only the boys can pursue higher learning; the girls must prepare for marriage. Bridges’ narrative centers on how Ruby—she was given the nickname because her favorite color is red—manages to buck this tradition. Both the story and Blackall’s bright, appealing watercolors will transport young readers to another time and place. The fairy tale-like plot is made all the more fantastic by the fact—not noted until the last page—that it is based on the real-life experiences of the author’s grandmother.
WAITING FOR CHRISTOPHER, by Louise Hawes. (Candlewick Press, $15.99; grades 7 and up.)
Fourteen-year-old Feena has never come to terms with the fact that her infant brother, Christy, died of SIDS 10 years earlier. But after her divorced mother uproots them from Connecticut to start a new life in Florida, Feena sees an opportunity to save another boy. At a run-down amusement park, she witnesses a woman abusing her toddler son, Christopher, and driving away without him. Feena rushes to grab the child but soon realizes she can’t secretly care for him and go to school, too. Plus, someone might misconstrue her rescue effort as a kidnapping. So she strikes a deal with Christopher’s mother: If she doesn’t call the police, Feena won’t call children’s services. Although farfetched, the plot makes palpable Feena’s need to be loved and her desire to do what’s best for Christopher. Hawes tackles complicated issues here with both sensitivity and eloquence.
DR. FRANKLIN’S ISLAND, by Ann Halam. (Wendy Lamb Books, $14.95; grades 7 and up.)
Miranda, Semi, and Arnie are among 50 British teen conservationists headed for the Ecuadorean rain forest. But after their plane crashes and explodes somewhere off the coast of South America, they are the only three survivors on what appears to be a desert island. They soon discover it’s the home of Dr. Franklin, the brilliant, yet mad, scientist determined to create “superhumans” who can “jump” from their natural bodies into those of animals. Presumed dead, Miranda, Semi, and Arnie prove perfect subjects for his tests. With a few DNA injections, Franklin turns them into a bird, a fish, and a snake. As the teens struggle to reconcile their human psyches with their beastly forms, Halam effectively addresses animal rights issues and the ethics of genetic engineering. She also deftly describes how it might feel to be, say, a manta ray gliding effortlessly through water. This plot-rich novel will captivate young science fiction enthusiasts.
NOSES ARE RED, by Richard Scrimger. (Tundra Books, $14.95; grades 3- 7.)
In this sequel to The Nose From Jupiter, Norbert, the alien who occupies 13-year-old Alan’s nose—and speaks through him—is back to help his troubled friend. This time, Alan’s mom sends him and his pal Victor on a canoeing adventure to bond with her new boyfriend, Christopher Leech. But the boys can’t keep up and are soon lost on a wooded island. They manage to find food and shelter, thanks largely to Zinta, an experienced outdoorswoman from nearby Camp Omega. A rescue helicopter eventually finds and drops the boys at the camp, where they find Leech recuperating from a sprained ankle in the arms of a suntanned nurse. Alan, however, has other problems. He promises, for example, to help Zinta defeat a rival camper in a poker tournament, and when Norbert teases the other player about her bleached blond hair, Alan gets punched. Although Alan is hardly the outdoors type and his resentment of Leech is obvious, in this uproarious story, he proves to be a better person and a good friend.
—Blake Hume Rodman and Jennifer Pricola