Kids' Books: Struggles of a Mayan Girl, and Tolerance Put to the Test

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(Note: Links are to the publishers' pages on featured books.)

The pursuit of knowledge and the anxieties renewed at the beginning of each school year are echoed in a number of recently published books for 8- to 12-year-olds. In Honeysuckle House (Front Street), by the prolific Andrea Cheng, a young girl tries to make sense of her best friend’s inexplicable departure and her father’s long absences. Sheri Gilbert’s The Legacy of Gloria Russell (Knopf) finds 12-year-old Billy James Wilkins grieving for his best friend after her unexpected death. He’s also looking for reasons, and he hopes to hear them from the town hermit, whom Gloria had recently befriended. And a clever, courageous teenager helps her grandmother "outsmart death" in Silvana Gandolfi’s Ald abra, or the Tortoise Who Loved Shakespeare (Arthur A. Levine), translated from the Italian by Lynne Sharon Schwartz.

The quest recounted in Ben Mikaelsen’s Tree Girl (HarperTempest) is based on that of a real-life Mayan native. In the novel, Gabí, a resident of Guatemala, watches helplessly as government and guerrilla soldiers plunder and destroy her village, leaving everyone for dead; she later discovers that her sister is among the living, many of whom hope to rebuild their community. Gary Paulsen, author of The Cookcamp, is someone who draws from his own past to create stories. In The Quilt (Wendy Lamb), his protagonist is now 6 years old and living with his grandmother in Minnesota while the men of the family fight overseas during World War II. Although his mother isn’t around much, "the boy" learns strength from the women of his extended family.

Aileen Kilgore Henderson’s Hard Times for Jake Smith (Milkweed) is set a decade earlier, during the Great Depression. The parents of MaryJake Wildsmith abandon their farm in search of a better life and compel their 12-year-old daughter to make her own way. But after disguising herself as a boy (hence the title), she’s able to reclaim her life—and her family. In David Almond’s The Fire-Eaters (Delacorte), Bobby Burns thinks himself a "lucky lad" and enjoys the simple pleasures and unusual characters of his quiet coastal town in northern England. His idyllic existence is threatened, however, by his enrollment in a brutal new school and the fears provoked by the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The threat of civil war pervades Fish (Delacorte), in which two aid workers and their young child, called Tiger, are forced to leave their adopted village. Author L.S. Matthews doesn’t reveal whether Tiger, the story’s narrator, is male or female or which ravaged country they’re fleeing, but the descriptions and the hardships endured are suggestive of contemporary Africa.

Looking toward the future, Helen Fox’s Eager (Wendy Lamb) features a new breed of robot that helps humans and makes them question what the word "alive" really means. And in The People of Sparks (Random House), Jeanne DuPrau’s sequel to The City of Ember, a community finds its tolerance tested after several hundred newcomers—refugees of unknown origin—arrive and attempt to assimilate themselves. Sounds a bit like the beginning of a new school year.

—Lani Harac

Vol. 16, Issue 1, Page 64

Published in Print: September 1, 2004, as Kids' Books
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