Whales on Stilts and A House of Tailors

By Lani Harac — April 15, 2005 2 min read
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For restless adolescents—kids 12 and older—there’s nothing like an exciting adventure, even if it means getting some scrapes and bruises along the way. In Odo Hirsch’s Yoss (Delacorte), the 14-year-old title character is a naive boy who leaves his mountaintop village for what’s meant to be a symbolic rite of passage. He encounters various scoundrels, thieves, and brigands in the towns he visits but eventually finds his way home with his innocence intact. In A House of Tailors (Wendy Lamb), by Patricia Reilly Giff, Dina Kirk is forced to make a new home for herself in America after leaving Germany in the 1870s. She’s pleased about the move until she discovers that the sewing work she so hated in Breisach is how she must earn her keep in Brooklyn. The outspoken behavior that gets the teenager into trouble early on ultimately proves to be her greatest strength.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Gifts (Harcourt) is set in the mythical Uplands, where strength is measured in terms of the power each person wields: speaking to animals, for example, or destroying with a glance. Fearful of their capacity for harm, two children decide to forsake their supernatural skills and develop more earthly ones. In World War II Shanghai, Ye Xian thinks that her only skill is enraging her stepmother, who kicks the girl out of the house after an argument. Adeline Yen Mah’s Chinese Cinderella and the Secret Dragon Society (HarperCollins) follows Ye Xian as she joins an eclectic band of orphans, learns kung fu, and embarks on a covert mission to aid a group of American airmen.


Libby Madrigal, 14, still lives with both her parents, but whenever her father gets drunk, which is often, he seems completely different. In The Serious Kiss (HarperCollins), by Mary Hogan, Libby longs for a typical teenage life as her father struggles to rediscover himself. Kalpana’s Dream (Front Street), by Judith Clarke, tells of another kind of search. Neema, an Australian girl, is unexpectedly visited by her great-grandmother from India; Kalpana has come because a recurring dream promises she can see her late husband’s beloved face again. As Neema gets to know her family’s history, she feels a strange connection with a new boy in school, who unwittingly played a part in Kalpana’s visit.

Julia Song is carrying out a family tradition by breeding silkworms—in this case, for the state fair. But she’s worried that the activity, suggested by her mom, is too Korean compared with the pies, quilts, and other Americana being made by others. At the end of each chapter in Project Mulberry (Clarion), Julia also “converses” with author Linda Sue Park about how the book was written. M.T. Anderson takes the whimsical even further in Whales on Stilts! (Harcourt), a kind of comic book without pictures. When Lily Gefelty discovers that a thinly disguised mad scientist plans to take over the world by hypnotizing the sea creatures and outfitting them with laser-beam eyes, she enlists two superhero pals to foil his nefarious plot.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 2005 edition of Teacher Magazine as KIDSBOOKS


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