THE STORYTELLERS, by Ted Lewin. (Lothrop, Lee, and Shepard, $16; grades K-2.) Some books so completely transport you to a distant land that you feel you've actually been there. They not only enhance your understanding of the place but also fill you with the knowledge that the world is infinitely greater than your own experience of it. Lewin's picture book does this masterfully.
As an old man and his grandson Abdul make their way to work through the dark, narrow streets of a North African town (it is not named in the story, but Lewin tells us in an author's note that it's Fez in Morocco), the reader gets a marvelous sense of this exotic place—the sights, the smells, the sounds. But the vivid prose and stunning watercolors do not romanticize this bustling desert community. As the man and boy observe local life and commerce—the muleteers, wool dyers, metal workers, and date merchants—they talk about how grateful they are not to have such unpleasant jobs. Passing the tannery, they hold mint leaves to their nostrils to mask the stink. "I'm glad we work where the air is fresh," Abdul says.
So where do the boy and his grandfather work, and what is it they do? This is a mystery that Lewin builds into the first half of his story. Unfortunately, the mystery is revealed in the title of the book. Abdul's grandfather is a storyteller who spends his days seated on a carpet just outside the old city gate, weaving tales for the gathered crowd. Grandfather begins each story the same way: "This happened, or maybe it did not. The time is long past, and most is forgot." And so it goes.
When Abdul exclaims at the end of the day that he and his grandfather "have the best job" in the whole town, readers can't help but agree. Lewin has created a remarkable book about a far-off place and the power of stories and those who tell them.
SMACK, by Melvin Burgess. (Henry Holt, $16.95; grades 11 and 12.) Living in a small English seaside town in the 1980s, two 14-year-olds, Gemma and David, run away from their middle-class homes and unwittingly alter their lives forever. Gemma is a whiny, self-centered girl who is annoyed by her parents' rules and ready for adventure. David, or "Tar," as Gemma calls him for his aversion to her smoking, is a shy and naive boy who lives with his alcoholic, manipulative mother and abusive father. Desperate, he flees to Bristol to escape the beatings.
There, he meets Richard, a kindly anarchist who transforms abandoned buildings into decent housing for runaways. Gemma joins Tar and three other youths in one of these "squats," and soon they are introduced to pot. Describing her first high, Gemma says, "All I remember is, everything was orange, and it looked like cats and weasels, and things were creeping round out of sight behind the dustbins and lampposts."
When the outgoing, mercurial Gemma craves even more excitement, she persuades Tar to move into another squat with Lily and Rob, slightly older teens wise in the ways of drugs. With little persuasion, the two start using heroin. "Sometimes maybe you need an experience," Tar says.
To make ends meet and to support their habit, Tar turns to shoplifting, Lily and Gemma become prostitutes, and Rob deals drugs. When Lily gets pregnant, they all decide for the good of the baby to stop doing drugs, convinced this will be easy. But during the fateful weekend when they go cold turkey, Gemma realizes the truth: "This time was different, and I knew I really was a junkie this time because, what's a junkie scared of? Not AIDS, not overdosing, like you might think. We were scared because there might be no more smack at the other end." The teens' lives spiral downward until Gemma has the desperation and courage to seek help.
Burgess' writing includes strong language as well as stark descriptions of the effects of drugs and violence, all of which heighten the horror of what the youngsters are doing to themselves. Each chapter is narrated by one of the main characters or one of their parents, an effective means of demonstrating the devastation that drugs have on everyone—the families as well as the teenagers.
Smack was first published in Britain, where it was titled Junk and where it won the prestigious 1997 Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Prize for Fiction amid a storm of controversy over its graphic depiction of heroin addiction among young teens. Burgess based the novel on his brother's experiences as a heroin addict. "In an age when we know that most of our 14-year-olds will try drugs of some kind or another in the next six or seven years," he recently told a reporter, "when many of them are taking drugs regularly, are we still seriously arguing about whether or not they should read books on the subject? I think it's best if children don't hear about drugs for the first time from someone who is trying to sell them some."
Kudos to Henry Holt for having the courage and foresight to publish the American edition of this hard-hitting and thought-provoking novel.
CIRCUS: An Album, by Linda Granfield. (DK Publishing, $19.95; all ages.) Granfield takes us on a fascinating journey through the history of the circus, from its early roots in ancient Rome to the present day. Along the way, we get behind-the-scenes glimpses of performers' lives, training, and acts as well as detailed descriptions of the sideshows and the set up of the big top. We also get an inside view of the management of such modern companies as Ringling Bros. and Cirque du Soleil. The illustrations—which include historic posters, photos, billboards, and drawings—are a splendid accompaniment to this well-researched and informative book.
MY FATHER'S BOAT, by Sherry Garland, with illustrations by Ted Rand. (Scholastic, $15.95; grades K-2.) Rand's stunning paintings of boats, fish, and other sea life distinguish this tender story about a young boy out for a day on his father's shrimping boat. As they ply the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the boy hears for the first time about his Vietnamese grandfather who fishes the South China Sea, half a world away.
OUTRAGEOUS WOMEN OF THE MIDDLE AGES, by Vicki Leon. (John Wiley and Sons, $12.95; young adult.) Here are portraits of 14 unusual medieval women from Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia who shared a goal: to succeed in a man's world. With courage and determination, they became explorers, writers, poets, warriors, rulers, and religious leaders. The text is bouncy and upbeat, with sidebars offering snippets of key historical background; the cover illustration of women on horseback is quirky but appealing.
THE CIRCUIT: Stories From the Life of a Migrant Childby Francisco Jiménez. (University of New Mexico Press, $10.95; grades 5-8.) Young Roberto narrates 12 interconnected stories about his family, which has illegally crossed the border from Mexico to California in search of a better life. Constantly moving from farm to farm picking crops, switching schools, and fearing the authorities, he longs for stability. Just as his wish is about to come true, tragedy strikes.
ALL AROUND TOWN: The Photographs of Richard Samuel Roberts, by Dinah Johnson. (Henry Holt, $15.95; grades K-6.) Amateur photographer Richard Roberts chronicled the lives of the African American citizens of Columbia, South Carolina, in the 1920s and '30s. This is an album of those photos, selected and simply but cleverly captioned by Johnson, editor of The Best of the Brownies Book. It's a slim volume but full of pride, strength, and humor.
BRIGHT STAR, by Gary Crew, with illustrations by Anne Spudvilas. (Kane/Miller, $13.95; grades 1-4.) Although Alicia dreams of stars and planets, her everyday life, like that of most Australian farm girls around the turn of the last century, is filled with dull, mindless chores. But a chance meeting with a famous astronomer who happens to live in town brings new possibilities.
—Blake Rodman and Barbara Hiron