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A Little Bit of Spectacular

Gin Phillips. Dial, $16.99 (176p) ISBN 978-0-8037-3837-9

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Eleven-year-old Olivia is desperate for something to distract her from the realities of a dead father and a seriously ill mother when a mysterious message on a restaurant’s bathroom wall has her trying to crack the code of the “Plantagenet,” be they aliens, a line of kings, or something more pedestrian. Along the way Olivia befriends a frog-keeping girl named Amelia, creating her first real connection in Birmingham, Ala., aside from kindly coffeehouse cashiers and the phantom scrawler. Phillips (The Hidden Summer) crafts a touching exploration of love and loss, told through the perspective of a child enduring adult responsibilities thrust upon her. Instead of bowing to pressure, Olivia is resilient, wise, and shrewd, while retaining childlike sensibilities, including a belief that anything is possible. Even as her mother’s health improves, Olivia wishes that she will never get sick or old, and the message suggests that there’s a way to make it so. The idea of living forever takes on a more poignant and attainable meaning by the time the two girls solve the mystery behind the riddle. Ages 10–up. (May)

Reviewed on 02/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Anywhere But Paradise

Anne Bustard. Egmont USA, $16.99 (288p) ISBN 978-1-60684-585-1

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The early days of Hawaiian statehood set the stage for this satisfying novel about a 12-year-old girl grudgingly navigating the biggest upheaval of her life. When Peggy Sue’s ex-military father moves their family from Texas to Hawaii in 1960, she is less than thrilled. As the new “haole” (white) girl at school, she’s an instant bully magnet for an especially bitter classmate. Peggy Sue desperately misses her grandparents and best friend back home, and her beloved cat, Howdy, must be kept in “animal quarantine jail” for 120 days. A frightening tsunami that threatens the islands pushes Peggy Sue to the brink, but she sees flashes of beauty and hope in her adopted surroundings that eventually help smooth her transition. Brief chapters help readers feel that they are counting the days until Howdy’s return along with Peggy Sue, and Bustard’s (Buddy: The Story of Buddy Holly) evocative descriptions highlight both the local and universal aspects of island life. Born in Hawaii, Bustard adeptly weaves elements of Hawaiian culture, lore, and history into an emotionally rich story. Ages 10–up. Agent: Emily Mitchell, Wernick & Pratt. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Grounded: The Adventures of Rapunzel

Megan Morrison. Scholastic/Levine, $17.99 (384p) ISBN 978-0-545-63826-5

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Those expecting a Disneyesque Rapunzel in Morrison’s debut, first in the Tyme series, will be pleasantly surprised by the novel’s emotional depth and inventiveness. Lulled into forgetting her past—including several princely attempts to free her—Rapunzel escapes the tower where she’s been kept complacent and happy to save the woman she knows as Witch from supposed murderous fairies. With Jack (of beanstalk fame) by her side, and a grumpy fairy watching from the woods, Rapunzel is bidden to travel through the lands of Tyme. As she passes through its color-coded territories, Rapunzel discovers the truth about herself, the family she never knew existed, and the reason for Jack’s helpfulness. Morrison turns the idea of a naïve, sheltered princess on its head, and when Witch’s cruel actions are revealed, Rapunzel’s brave decision offers a final act of kindness that adds to the story’s already potent mythology and symbolism. The slow, circular dialogue at the beginning of the novel gives way to a full-bodied world worth revisiting. Ages 10–14. Agent: Ammi-Joan Paquette, Erin Murphy Literary Agency (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Mischief and Malice

Berthe Amoss. Ig/Skurnick, $18.95 (208p) ISBN 978-1-939601-44-5

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More than 35 years after the publication of Secret Lives, Amoss returns with a sequel that sees now-14-year-old Addie Agnew living with her Aunt Toosie, Uncle Henry, and “hateful” cousin, Sandra Lee, in the weeks before Pearl Harbor. Addie’s Aunt Eveline has died, but Addie still feels close to her, thanks to the Catholic belief in communion with the saints. Addie struggles with romance: she’s not sure how she feels about Tom, her best friend who seems boring compared to Sandra Lee’s boyfriend. When Tom’s father, Louis, returns after having abandoned his family, Addie is sure she is in love (“It must have happened before, and he’d only be forty-four when I was twenty”), but Louis’s attentions to Addie may have more to do with a secret he is hiding. While the mystery element is slightly rushed and too easily solved, Addie’s crushes will resonate with all who have misplaced their affections. The competitive relationship between the cousins is realistically drawn, and Addie’s amusing, tart observations and the homey New Orleans setting form the heart of this lively and engaging read. Ages 9–up. (May)

Reviewed on 02/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Way Home Looks Now

Wendy Wan-Long Shang. Scholastic Press, $16.99 (272p) ISBN 978-0-545-60956-2

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A grieving Chinese-American family begins to find strength and healing through a shared passion for baseball in this warm, hopeful novel set in 1972. Twelve-year-old Peter longs for the days in “the Before,” when his older brother, Nelson, taught him how to throw a palm ball and they listened to Pittsburgh Pirates games on the radio with their mother. Everything changes when Nelson is killed in a car accident: Peter’s mother disengages from the family, leaving him and his father, Ba, to hold things together for younger sister Laney. Peter believes that joining a Little League team could help make “the After” more bearable for all of them, a goal that’s put to the test when Ba comes aboard as coach. Shang (The Great Wall of Lucy Wu) skillfully balances the different aspects of Peter’s life, robustly characterizing his friendships and his time at school and home. Issues of sexism, racism, and struggles with depression are handled deftly in scenarios grounded in reality, including an ending that’s hopeful without being pat. Ages 8–12. Agent: Quinlan Lee, Adams Literary. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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My Life in Dioramas

Tara Altebrando, illus. by T.L. Bonaddio. Running Press, $14.95 (256p) ISBN 978-0-7624-5681-9

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In a thoughtful story about making the best of unwanted change, 12-year-old Kate Marino adores her family’s Hudson Valley farmhouse, “Big Red,” and it’s inconceivable that her parents have decided to sell it with little explanation. Kate may not be able to stay at her current school or participate in an upcoming dance competition. Instead of sulking, Kate gets creative, making intricate shoebox dioramas to preserve her memories at Big Red while carrying out giggle-worthy schemes to drive away potential buyers, aided by her imaginative friend Naveen. But the realtor gets wise to Kate’s plots, and soon the house is on its way to being sold. Altebrando (The Battle of Darcy Lane) packs the pages with details about Big Red’s quirks and Kate’s memories growing up there, making it easy for readers to see how much it means to her. The financial and other pressures affecting Kate’s parents also register strongly, and Altebrando’s conclusion is hopeful and realistic without coming across as too pat. Final art not seen by PW. Ages 8–12. Agent: David Dunton, Harvey Klinger. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Archie Greene and the Magician’s Secret

D.D. Everest. Harper, $16.99 (320p) ISBN 978-0-06-231211-2

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In his first book for children, Everest launches a fanciful series about a secret organization dedicated to protecting the legacy of the Library of Alexandria. When Archie Greene turns 12, he receives a mysterious package: an ancient book, with instructions to return it to a certain bookstore. There, he’s inducted into the Flame Keepers as an apprentice bookbinder and introduced to the Museum of Magical Miscellany, where magical books are stored. As he becomes acquainted with the wonders and perils of his new role, he gets to know the cousins he never knew existed. But the Flame Keepers have enemies—such as the Greaders, who want the books’ magic for themselves—and ominous events suggest that a traitor is working to release a long-imprisoned evil. Only Archie, with his newfound ability to speak with books, can save the day. Many of the novel’s elements are familiar (a hidden, magic-based society; a predestined hero with a special power), but Everest uses them to deliver a fast-paced tale full of mystery and excitement. Ages 8–12. Agent: Jo Hayes, Bell Lomax Moreton. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Divorce Is the Worst

Anastasia Higginbotham. Feminist, $16.95 (64p) ISBN 978-1-55861-880-0

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First in the Ordinary Terrible Things series, Higginbotham’s debut children’s book offers a frank look at the painful, confused emotions that are often a part of divorce. Set on the brown paper of bagged school lunches, the collaged artwork incorporates fabric scraps, torn photographs, and hand-lettered text as (largely unseen) parents tell their child that they are divorcing. “It can come as a surprise. When it does, it’s the worst,” writes Higginbotham as the child (whose gender is kept neutral) gasps. Higginbotham draws the child’s features in ink, and readers follow a chain of emotions that includes shock, anger, sadness, and (short-lived) hope. “You’re getting me a horse?” the child asks. “Um no,” comes the response. “A divorce.” The illustrations deliver a substantial emotional impact—a series of pages shows the child doing household chores while “reasons” like “We fell out of love” and “We’ve changed” appear on dirty dishes and thick gray carpeting. But it’s Higginbotham’s directness and refusal to talk down to her audience that will make this book such an asset to families negotiating divorce. Ages 4–8. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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What This Story Needs Is a Pig in a Wig

Emma J. Virján. Harper, $9.99 (40p) ISBN 978-0-06-232724-6

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In a story with echoes of Seuss and Willems, Virján (Nacho the Party Puppy) offers a very funny lesson about the unreliability of narrators. “What this story needs,” the unseen narrator declares, “is a pig.” Fair enough: the pig, pink and drawn in a naïve cartoon style, appears in a spotlight. When the narrator decrees that the pig don a red bouffant wig and climb in a boat in a moat “with a frog,/ a dog,/ and a goat on a log,” the pig goes along with the plan, though it’s clear dubiousness is setting in. But when the narrator keeps adding so many rhyming characters and objects that it imperils everyone on board the tiny pink ship, the pig finally speaks up. “Hey!” she calls out, “It’s getting crowded in here, don’t you think?/ Off of this boat before we all sink!” Taking control of the narration, the pig sends the other animals packing, but the final scene sets things right while tipping its hat to a classic line from Jaws. Ages 4–8. Agent: Edite Kroll, Edite Kroll Literary Agency. (May)

Reviewed on 02/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Spy Guy: The Not-So-Secret Agent

Jessica Young, illus. by Charles Santoso. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $16.99 (40p) ISBN 978-0-544-20859-9

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Being a spy isn’t easy for a noisy and occasionally clumsy kid like Spy Guy. Luckily, he can turn to Dad, aka “the Chief,” for advice, which Young rhymes for maximum pith: “If you seek to sneak, try not to speak.” Young (My Blue Is Happy) and Santoso (Max Makes a Cake) open their story with what seems like a brush-off (the Chief is reading, so naturally he wants Spy Guy to be quiet), but it quickly turns into a tribute to savvy parental mentoring. Attempting to successfully sneak up on his father, Spy Guy takes inspiration from a spider that Santoso tucks into each scene, but readers looking for a bit more edge might be disappointed. The Chief rocks a monochromatic ensemble reminiscent of a Cold War spy for much of the book, but Santoso’s crisp images and liberal use of white space keep the focus on domestic comedy over potential intrigue. Now that he’s honed his craft, maybe Spy Guy will get something to investigate next time. Ages 4–8. Author’s agent: Kelly Sonnack, Andrea Brown Literary Agency. Illustrator’s agent: Justin Rucker, Shannon Associates. (May)

Reviewed on 02/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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