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The Magician’s Fire

Simon Nicholson. Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, $15.99 (240p) ISBN 978-1-4926-0332-0

British children’s TV writer Nicholson makes his U.S. debut with this launch to the Young Houdini series, which opens in 1886 Manhattan. Harry, who has been shining shoes since his recent arrival from Budapest, shows off his daring early on, escaping from padlocked chains seconds before a train screams by (and earning showers of coins from impressed onlookers). Nicholson smoothly blends Houdini’s prowess as an escape artist with his fictional hero’s sleuthing skills as he tracks down a missing elderly magician. Two well-drawn friends—Billie, an orphan from New Orleans, and Arthur, the neglected son of a wealthy banker—help Harry solve the mystery. Rebelling against Harry’s bossiness, the two set out to crack the case by themselves, a plot twist the author mines for humor as well as messages about friendship and teamwork. Nicholson works the theme of escape throughout the story: Billie flees from her job in a glue factory and Artie avoids being shipped off to boarding school. A cliffhanger ending will leave readers eager for the next installment. Ages 10–up. Agent: Eve White, Literary Agent. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Gracefully Grayson

Ami Polonsky. Disney-Hyperion, $16.99 (256p) ISBN 978-1-4231-8527-7

Sixth-grader Grayson has ways of getting by—he doodles abstract triangles instead of the princesses he yearns to be, and he wears oversize T-shirts and loose pants instead of the skirts and dresses he longs for. Grayson’s aunt and uncle worry about his isolation (his parents died when he was small), and they are thrilled when he makes his first friend in years and tries out for the school play. They’re less thrilled to learn he auditioned for the lead role—the Greek goddess Persephone. Debut author Polonsky uses the play effectively, showing the community that builds among the actors, Grayson’s connection to Persephone and her underground captivity, and the tensions swirling around the casting choice and the play’s director, a popular teacher who may or may not be gay. Polonsky skillfully conveys Grayson’s acute loneliness and his growing willingness to open up about who he is, though the book has a dutiful feel in its efforts to raise awareness about gender nonconforming and transgender preteens. Ages 10–14. Agent: Wendy Schmalz, Wendy Schmalz Agency. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Running Out of Night

Sharon Lovejoy. Delacorte, $16.99 (304p) ISBN 978-0-385-74409-6

Inspired by her ancestors’ letters, nonfiction author Lovejoy (The Little Green Island with a Little Red House) sets her first novel in antebellum Virginia as she follows two girls seeking their freedom—one from slavery, the other from her family. Ever since the death of her mother during childbirth, the narrator, now 12, has been abused and denied a name by her Pa (she later becomes known as Lark for her birdlike whistle). After Lark helps to hide Zenobia, a runaway slave (who Lark’s Pa and brothers are hunting for), the girls decide to run off together. On the danger-filled trek east toward the Quaker village of Watertown, the girls take turns rescuing and aiding each other, meeting another runaway slave, a boy named Brightwell, as well as Auntie Theodate, who runs a safe house. Written in a believably rough-edged dialect (a glossary is included) and distinguished by lively descriptions and dialogue, Lovejoy’s story offers a tense account of the perils facing those who sought freedom in the lead-up to the Civil War. Ages 9–12. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Map to Everywhere

Carrie Ryan and John Parke Davis. Little, Brown, $17 (448p) ISBN 978-0-316-24077-2

Ryan (the Forest of Hands and Teeth series) teams up with her husband, short fiction author Davis, to launch a series that sees an intrepid girl from Earth teaming up with a colorful cast as they attempt to prevent the end of everything. Trapped aboard a ship sailing the Pirate Stream, a waterway that meanders between myriad worlds, 12-year-old Marrill must help her new friends find the scattered pieces of the Bintheyr Map to Everywhere if she has any hope of getting home. Unfortunately, an ancient, insane wizard also seeks the Map; if he gets it first, he could destroy all of creation. Marrill’s new best friend is Fin, a master thief and orphan who’s literally forgettable, a useful ability for a thief, but one that can make for a lonely existence (Marrill is one of only a few people who recognize him from minute to minute). Fast-paced and imaginative, this adventure combines action with whimsy, injecting emotion and pathos into an otherwise lighthearted romp. It’s a strong start for what promises to be a highly enjoyable series. Ages 8–12. Agent: Merrilee Heifetz, Writers House. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Water Rolls, Water Rises/ El agua rueda, el agua sube

Pat Mora, illus. by Meilo So. Lee & Low/Children’s Book Press, $18.95 (32p) ISBN 978-0-89239-325-1

In a bilingual tribute to water with a truly global scope, Mora’s (I Pledge Allegiance) verse and So’s (Brush of the Gods) spare mixed-media illustrations swing from placid to tempestuous, creating an effective and fitting ebb and flow. A description of a peaceful river scene inspired by the Yangtze (“Slow into rivers/ water slithers and snakes/ through silent canyons at twilight and dawn”) contrasts with an evocation of a violent Patagonia sea (“In storms, water plunges/ in thunder’s brash roar,/ races through branches from lightning’s white flash”). So’s palette also shifts to suit the vista: children in Finland play by a brook framed by brilliant fall foliage, while smoky grays dominate a hushed scene featuring the human and feline residents of Venice, enshrouded in fog. Some of the images and allusions suggest water’s life-sustaining power: men fish in India, Kenyan women fetch water from a well, and in the canals of Holland, “water streams, water slides,/ gliding up roots of tulips and corn.” An expressive celebration of the world’s waterscapes. Ages 6–11. Illustrator’s agent: Sally Heflin, Heflinreps. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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What the Sleepy Animals Do at the Audubon Zoo

Grace Millsaps and Ryan Murphy, illus. by John Clark IV and Alyson Kilday. Sleepy Animals LLC (www.thesleepyanimals.com), $21.95 (44p) ISBN 978-0-9887603-0-1

The husband-and-wife team of Millsaps and Murphy, along with Clark and Kilday of the Hop and Jaunt design firm, debut with a jaunty story whose publication was funded through crowdsourced contributions. In it, they tackle a question that has plagued zoo-goers as long as there have been zoos: Why are all the animals sleeping? A girl named Renee asks her father this question during their visit to New Orleans’s Audubon Zoo, triggering a long, inventive explanation on his part—namely that the animals were up all night throwing a wild shindig. While there are a few shaky moments in the meter and rhyme of Millsaps and Murphy’s verse, it provides amusing setups aplenty: “The sea lions sometimes will synchronize swim./ There’s a costume contest and everyone wins./ The best one at limbo is the white alligator,/ and when they get hungry, the pelicans cater” (directly from their bills, which are stuffed with jambalaya, gumbo, and more). Clark and Kilday’s polished cartoons are full of entertainingly goofy details—green hippos, purple seals, and other not-found-in-nature combos are in keeping with the silly, free-spirited mood. Ages 4–8. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Outside

Deirdre Gill. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $16.99 (40p) ISBN 978-0-547-91065-9

Newcomer Gill’s story starts on a winter afternoon as a boy tries to persuade his older brother to play outside. (In a collection of otherwise dreamlike spreads, the image of the older boy staring slack-jawed at his computer provides a moment of comedy.) Alone outside, the younger boy builds a gigantic snowman as snow-blanketed spruce trees watch over him; although he doesn’t realize it, they’re alive. Imagination reigns as the snowman, too, comes to life, peers gently down at the boy, then helps him build a magnificent snow castle. At day’s end, the sunset takes shape as a gold- and rose-tinted dragon: “Together the boy and the dragon fly over the trees, over the house, and above the village, until the world below looks very small.” Gill understands the dynamics of storytelling and uses economical narration and white space with practiced skill. There’s a push-and-pull between the charm of the boy’s solitary adventure and the need to resolve the conflict with his older brother; their reconciliation is a tad hasty. Nevertheless, Gill’s ability to make the world of imagination come alive is indisputable. Ages 4–8. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Noodle Magic

Roseanne Greenfield Thong, illus. by Meilo So. Scholastic/Orchard, $16.99 (32p) ISBN 978-0-545-52167-3

Mei’s grandfather Tu is a master noodle maker, and his noodles are not just for eating. They can be anything, from jump ropes to kite strings. When he says it’s Mei’s turn to make magic noodles for the emperor’s birthday, she’s baffled. “Magic must come from within,” he tells her. As Mei works, Grandpa Tu offers her encouragement, and after a tug-of-war with none other than the Moon Goddess perched in the moon above, Mei makes enough noodles to feed everybody: “The sky rained noodles.” So’s (Brush of the Gods) exuberantly drawn and tinted illustrations feature the curves of traditional Chinese architecture, vignettes of village life, and rhythmic movement, as noodles fall in fanciful, calligraphic curlicues. Thong’s (Round Is a Tortilla) text features two themes that seem at cross-purposes. One is the reality-based theme of passing down traditional knowledge, with an emphasis on sensory experience; the other is a folklore-style fantasy in which anything can happen. So while it’s a tasty morsel of Chinese culinary culture, the action can be hard to follow. Ages 4–8. Author’s agent: Natalie Lakosil, Bradford Literary Agency. Illustrator’s agent: Sally Heflin, Heflinreps. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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A Letter for Leo

Sergio Ruzzier. Clarion, $16.99 (32p) ISBN 978-0-544-22360-8

Leo, a ferretlike critter, makes everyone’s day with his postal deliveries of “big boxes, small packets, envelopes of every size, catalogs, love letters, birthday cards.” Leo will occasionally take a moment to stop for a chat or play bocce, but he’s actually a solitary fellow who has never received a letter himself. Then one day Leo rescues a little bird who’s become stuck in a mailbox, and everything changes for him—including his eventual understanding of why the mail means so much to his customers. Ruzzier (Bear and Bee Too Busy) has long had a taste—and gift—for the slightly surreal, but his watercolor-and-ink drawings in this outing are very much slice-of-life, with an old-fashioned sense of characterization and telling detail; readers will feel that they instantly know the “little old town” where Leo delivers letters and all of its inhabitants. This is a lovely story about connection and all that it implies, told with concision, reticence, and just the right balance of bitter and sweet. Ages 4–8. Agent: George Nicholson, Sterling Lord Literistic. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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A Bed for Bear

Clive McFarland. Harper, $17.99 (32p) ISBN 978-0-06-223705-7

A bed of one’s own—that’s all Bernard the bear wants, because the cave where his fellow bears will be hibernating is “too noisy, too big, and too crowded.” So Bernard tries out the beds of other forest dwellers, wreaking mild havoc along the way, demolishing Bird’s nest, and nearly doing the same to Rabbit’s hutch. Mouse, who has been trailing Bernard, shows him exactly what he wants: “a bed that is not wet, not windy, extra roomy, with just the right amount of company!” Of course, it’s the bear cave. McFarland’s short text is as literal as it gets, and the arts-and-crafts earnestness of his illustrations, made from digitally enhanced paper and watercolors, ostensibly promises little more than a standard-issue quest. What McFarland has going for him is a sneaky sense of visual wit. Where other creators would have shown Bernard’s victims having conniption fits, Bernard’s cluelessness earns him some very Klassen-y side-eye from the other animals. Once readers glean what’s going on behind all the poker faces and understatement, they’ll be hooked. Ages 4–8. Agency: the Bright Agency. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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