SQUIRE: Protector of the Small, by Tamora Pierce. (Random House, $15.95; grades 7 and up.)
If Harry Potter ever needs a female cohort, Squire Keladry of Mindelan, the heroine of Pierce's action-adventure series about a knight-in-training, could easily back him up. At 15, Kel has been known, while wielding a 14-foot lance, to toss full-fledged knights from charging horses. And much to the chagrin of her foes, she does so without the aid of magic.
In the first two installments of the series, set in the fictional kingdom of Tortall, Kel overcomes the seething disapproval of conservative nobles to earn a spot as the first official female page in a century. After four grueling years of proving she can perform even better than her male counterparts, she continues her uphill battle during this second phase of training. By now, however, she's won a few key supporters, including the highly respected Lord Raoul, who signs on as her knight-master. Under his tutelage, Kel hunts pirates, battles centaurs, builds dams, and survives hand-to-hand combat with Tortall's northern neighbors.
All the while, she mentally prepares for the final rite of passage into knighthood—the Ordeal. In a magic chamber, she must face, and overcome, her worst fears. Those who've gone before her say the chamber is "like a cutter of gemstones. It looks for your flaws and hammers them, till you crack open." But Kel has already survived some crucial real-life tests. In the past year, for example, she's seen criminals hanged and children murdered by bandits. And appalled to learn that a young noble who'd kidnapped a lowly maid was only fined for his offense, she boldly appealed to the king himself. "That's not right," she told him. "It's like saying common folks are slaves. Their rights are measured in coin, not justice."
As Kel is forced to make her own decisions, Pierce treats tough subject matter with frank dialogue and candid prose, enabling readers to draw parallels between medieval and contemporary issues. Kel's first encounter with love, for example, leaves her in a romantic tizzy: She wants to earn her knight's shield without distraction but can't deny her feelings.
Kel's mother advises her to "get a charm to keep you from pregnancy, until you're certain you'd like to be a mother. Then, if you do get carried away, you can surrender to your feelings." This mature approach, coupled with the thrill of adventure, is what makes the book so alluring.
The omniscient narrator rallies readers behind Kel, who's determined to make a mark in an often-confusing, male-dominated kingdom. She shines as a role model for both the little noble girls, who take up archery in her footsteps, and today's young women. Still, boys will be equally enchanted by the tale, if not specifically for Kel's heroics then for the broader story of chivalry. Every child dreams of becoming someone special, and Kel just might succeed.
— Jennifer Pricola
A DRAGON IN THE SKY: The Story of a Green Darner Dragonfly, by Laurence Pringle, with illustrations by Bob Marstall. (Orchard, $18.95; grades K-4.)
More than half a century ago, an author-illustrator with a remarkable talent and memorable name began turning out intricately plotted, meticulously researched, and lavishly illustrated children's books, the likes of which had not been seen before. In gems like Tree in the Trail, Pagoo, and Minn of the Mississippi, Holling Clancy Holling followed the life cycles, respectively, of a giant cottonwood tree, a hermit crab, and a snapping turtle. Largely ignored (if not forgotten) today, his books seamlessly blended fact and fiction in a way that made them both informative and entertaining for kids and adults alike.
With Dragon in the Sky, Pringle follows in Holling's footsteps, tracking the existence of a single darner dragonfly he calls Anax. Although he's given the insect a name, Pringle avoids anthropomorphism. He sticks to the facts, describing in detail Anax's experiences and surroundings from his earliest days as a nymph in a western New York swamp to his final days, months later, at a pond in Florida.
Pringle, who has written more than 90 children's books, does a fine job mixing science and storytelling. Although not a page turner, the narrative offers many dramatic moments while chronicling the stages in Anax's life. Dragonflies may be large, fierce-looking insects, but they are relatively small, fragile players within their ecosystems. As a result, life is a constant struggle to eat but not be eaten. Almost every page relates a narrow escape from a larger predator or the tasty conquest of a damselfly, ant, or small moth.
Throughout the narrative, Pringle drops in all kinds of interesting factual tidbits. He writes, for example, that dragonfly wings are "powered in a way unique among insects." Most flying bugs have four wings that beat as a single unit. But a dragonfly's front and back wings move independently, allowing the insect to remain parallel to the ground and make split-second maneuvers, Pringle explains.
One of the unmistakable trademarks of Holling's books was the marginalia. While his stunning full-page paintings brought the stories to life, copious line drawings and jottings filled the borders around the text, giving readers loads of additional material. Marstall and Pringle employ the same device. Their margins aren't as packed as Holling's, but the small illustrations and accompanying captions add wonderful sidelights to the narrative. Marstall's larger illustrations, done in watercolor and oil, also work nicely. Delicate and detailed, they give the pages a graceful, almost elegant, feel.
This, then, is a great book for the elementary classroom, perfect for reading aloud over several days. Both entertaining and smart, it will teach students about dragonflies and their environs. But it also will do something else: show kids that, in the natural world, survival rests on a little skill and a lot of luck.
—Blake Hume Rodman
FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS: Heroes of Iwo Jima, by James Bradley, with Ron Powers, adapted for young people by Michael French. (Delacorte Press, $15.95; grades 6 and up.)
History buffs and budding photographers will especially enjoy this kid- friendly version of Bradley's adult book. He introduces six U.S. Marines who served in "Easy Company" during World War II—the men Joe Rosenthal photographed as they raised an American flag on Mount Suribachi. The shot earned a Pulitzer Prize and made celebrities of the three flag raisers who survived the war. But few know the story behind the photo or how the men shunned the spotlight. Bradley is reverential in his descriptions of the young soldiers, including his father, John "Doc" Bradley, but he successfully voices their humility: "The men of Easy Company—they just did what anybody would have done, and they were not heroes." French makes the story accessible to young readers, and because Bradley focuses on the idea of heroism more than the war, the book doesn't read like an academic tome.
LARKY MAVIS,by Brock Cole. (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $16; grades K-2.) In his novels for young adults—The Goats and The Facts Speak for Themselves, among others—Cole often addresses dark, disturbing themes. But his work for young children displays a lighter touch, as anyone who has ever picked up Nothing but a Pig, The Giant's Toe, Buttons, or his other picture books knows. These stories are amusing and quirky but usually thought-provoking, as well. Larky Mavis is no exception; in fact, it may be Cole's pièce de résistance. In the book, a socially outcast but harmless young woman discovers a creature living in a peanut shell, of all places. She then nurtures it to maturity despite the scorn and disapproval of her fellow villagers. In the end, her steadfastness and faith are rewarded with grace. To say more would spoil the impact of this remarkable tale, deftly illustrated by Cole in pen and watercolor.
FOLLOWING FAKE MAN,by Barbara Ware Holmes. (Knopf, $15.95; grades 4- 7.) At 12, Homer Winthrop recognizes his unique ability to express his emotions in artistic ways. How, then, can he be related to his mother, a linguist who pays more attention to Homer's diction than what he's trying to say? He asks, for example, about his neurologist father, who died of a neurological disease, and she just says it's a "sad irony." But when they visit a town in Maine where Dad once lived, Homer begins to search for more telling clues. What ensues is a lively string of events involving a "hard-core phony baloney" man possibly connected to the late Dr. Winthrop. Though Homer narrates, the book is also sprinkled with quirky, first-person accounts from others, including his friend's comic-strip report on trailing the "fake man." In the end, Homer does crack the mystery, but to say more would ruin the fun.
THE NAME JAR,by Yangsook Choi. (Knopf, $16.95; grades K-2.) On her first day of school in the United States, Unhei, a young Korean girl, gets teased during the bus ride by some children who can't pronounce her name. Embarrassed, she decides to come up with a new American name and tells her classmates that she'll choose one within a week. Before long, a large jar appears on her desk with some pieces of paper inside: name suggestions from the other children. As the jar fills up, anticipation grows. Although the outcome seems obvious—surely she will keep her own name—it's worth noting that Choi herself took the name Rachel after she emigrated from Korea to the United States in 1991. Effectively illustrated with warm, somewhat folkish paintings, The Name Jar is a compelling and moving story, sure to make young readers see how awkward and lonely newcomers from other countries must feel.
LADY LOLLIPOP,by Dick King-Smith, with illustrations by Jill Barton. (Candlewick Press, $14.99; grades 3-6.) A spoiled princess, the parents who can't control her, an impoverished orphan, and a pig named Lollipop prove the perfect ingredients for a delightful fairy tale. On her 8th birthday, Princess Penelope demands a pig, and not just any pig. She wants the only swine trained to sit, stand, and roll over on command—even if the animal responds only to the gentle voice of its young instructor, Johnny Skinner. She brings both pig and boy to the Royal Mews, despite her parents' pleas to the contrary (Chapter 8 is drolly titled "If the pig comes in, Mommy goes out"), and charges Johnny with "palace-training" Lollipop. As any seasoned fable reader can guess, he also ends up teaching Penelope to be a considerate young lady. The moralistic plot borders on hackneyed, but the antics of Lollipop, who charms even the fastidious Queen Ethelwynne by fertilizing her prize-winning roses, are sure to please.
SORRY, by Jean Van Leeuwen, with illustrations by Brad Sneed. (Fogelman, $15.99; grades K-2.) A great picture book is usually the product of a great partnership, one in which writer and illustrator bring equally high measures of talent to the project. Such is the case with Sorry. In clean, easy prose, Van Leeuwen—author of dozens of children's books, including the Amanda and Oliver Pig stories—weaves an odd but irresistible tale about two grown brothers, Ebenezer and Obadiah, who live together happily on a farm until they fight one day over a bowl of lumpy oatmeal. Neither can bring himself to apologize, so the two eventually divide their land and stop speaking to each other. Years pass, and the brothers marry, raise families, and thrive, but it takes cousins two generations removed from Ebenezer and Obadiah to say the word that finally ends the feud. It's a good yarn, and Sneed's vibrant watercolors and distinctive perspective and characterizations add a wistful poignancy that makes this little volume special.
—Jennifer Pricola and Blake Hume Rodman
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Vol. 13, Issue 2, Page 53Published in Print: October 1, 2001, as For Kids