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Beau, Lee, the Bomb & Me

Mary McKinley. Kensington/KTeen, $9.95 trade paper (256p) ISBN 978-1-61773-255-3

When a life of being violently bullied becomes unbearable, 16-year-old friends Rusty, Leonie, and Beau load up in Rusty's parents' minivan and leave Seattle for San Francisco, where Beau's gay uncle lives. They are happy to leave "Baboon High" in the dust—it's where Rusty was taunted for being overweight, Leonie was slut-shamed by classmates and caught up in a manipulative affair with her English teacher, and Beau was beat up by homophobic bullies. Snarky and bookish, Rusty narrates their quest for solace and acceptance as they travel through small West Coast towns and rescue a stray dog (aka "The Bomb"). McKinley's TV writing and sketch comedy background show in her smart dialogue, and her debut reads like a love letter to the geography of the Northwest. She quickly develops these three outsider characters, exploring how friendships can be forged through common suffering and the role that complacency plays in perpetuating bullying. McKinley puts forth positive messages about being true to oneself and avoiding judging others, though the heavy-handed delivery overwhelms the story at times. Ages 13–up. Agent: Helen Breitwieser, Cornerstone Literary. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Vango: Between Sky and Earth

Timothée de Fombelle, trans. from the French by Sarah Ardizzone. Candlewick, $17.99 (432p) ISBN 978-0-7636-7196-9

Young Vango Romano longs to become a priest, despite his interest in Ethel, a girl he can't seem to forget. With the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party looming as a backdrop on Vango's ordination day in April 1934, he's accused of murder. Vango escapes the police by scaling the walls of Notre Dame like a spider and racing across the rooftops of Paris (and eventually the world) as multiple parties give chase and war erupts. Vango's past is murky—he washed up on the shores of a remote Italian isle with his nurse, a woman desperate to hide his origins—yet Vango's identity might hold the answer to why so many people want to find him. In this exceptional, sprawling novel, French author de Fombelle (Toby Alone) builds a layered tale around his mysterious protagonist, one full of humor and memorable characters. Part fantasy, part adventure, part historical novel, the story of Vango's flight across Europe and the smart young women that populate his life will be sure to thrill fans of Kenneth Oppel and win de Fombelle many enthusiasts of his own. Ages 12–up. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Autumn Falls

Bella Thorne. Delacorte, $18.99 (224p) ISBN 978-0-385-74433-1

In actress Thorne's YA debut, sophomore Autumn Falls, stuck with a name "that calls me out as a complete klutz and seasonally challenged," moves with her family to Florida after her father's accidental death. There, Autumn's Cuban grandmother gives her a magical journal and tells her it "could change your life." And the journal does seem to make Autumn's wishes come true, leading to the temptation to seek revenge when she is bullied by pretty, popular Reenzie ("Pro tip... you want to take care of [your skin] out here. Heat can make breakouts even worse"). Thorne's book has a fun premise and some silly moments (such as when one of Autumn's written wishes has Reenzie slip and fall in a pile of dog poop during track practice), and a few of the characters have inauthentic affectations, such as Autumn's grandmother's belief that there are sleeping pills in the ice cream at her assisted living home. But as Autumn begins to realize the problems with payback, her insights help compensate for an over-the-top and oversweet final scene. Ages 12–up. Agent: Matthew Elblonk, DeFiore and Company. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Julius and the Watchmaker

Tim Hehir. Text Publishing (Consortium, dist.), $9.95 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-1-922079-73-2

When readers meet Julius Caesar Higgins, a 14-year-old boy living in Victorian London, he's on the run from bully Crimper McCready and frustrated by his inability to stand up for himself. Julius's grandfather, who owns an antiquarian bookstore, has two clients interested in the same journal by a famous watchmaker, and Julius gives the book to one of the men, Springheel, in exchange for temporary lodging and respite from his tormentors. Yet the journal holds the key for Springheel to open a vortex in time, unleashing dangerous forces from "parallel vibration fields" into Victorian London. The other interested book buyer, the Professor, enlists Julius to try and stop Springheel by using a magic watch to pass through the vortex and close the portal. First-time novelist Hehir skillfully develops a shadowy London backdrop, with clear allusions to Dickens, while drawing steampunk elements into the story. Readers may be as confused as Julius is over the machinations behind the time travel, but should still find it easy to get swept up in his rapid-fire adventures. Ages 11–13. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Ribblestrop

Andy Mulligan. S&S/Beach Lane, $16.99 (384p) ISBN 978-1-4424-9904-1

After students arrive at Ribblestrop, they quickly learn that this boarding school is no Hogwarts: it's collapsing and partially burned out, and most of their classmates turn out to be Himalayan orphans. When tough 12-year-old Millie, the only girl at the school, gets lost in WWII-era tunnels running underneath Ribblestrop, she discovers mysterious and frightening experiments taking place. The students work together to rebuild the school while figuring out what is happening in the tunnels. Strange characters—including incoming student Sam, who suffers a torrent of injuries, and a vile new headmistress issuing endless rules—make for some outrageous scenes, but there are also truly terrifying moments, as when Millie finally understands what scientists are trying to achieve (and upon whom they are experimenting). These stand in stark contrast to the anything-goes silliness that runs through the novel; additionally, the orphans can come across like caricatures, and mostly remain part of the backdrop, not protagonists. Despite these tonal inconsistencies, this clever novel, published in 2009 in the U.K., is as unusual as Ribblestrop itself. Ages 8–12. Agent: Jane Turnbull. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Dirk Daring, Secret Agent

Helaine Becker, illus. by Jenn Playford. Orca, $9.95 trade paper (208p) ISBN 978-1-4598-0683-2

Eleven-year-old Darren Dirkowitz—aka Dirk Daring, Secret Agent—is very serious about his spycraft. Becker's (Zoobots) story takes the form of Darren's top-secret journal, which is annotated with doodles and sarcastic notes from his best friend, Travis (code name: T-Bone), who thinks of his buddy less as a super-spy than as "Darren Dirkowitz, fifth-grader and all-around butt." As Becker's story unfolds, Darren teams up Travis and his crush, Opal Vega, to bring junk food back to the school vending machines and remove his "archenemy" stepbrother, Jason Arsenico (code name: Waldo), from the school presidency. The only problem: Jason is threatening to expose Darren's journal, making him "the laughingstock of Preston Middle School" unless Darren spies on Jason's "enemies" for him. Full of wisecracking jokes, shifting alliances, and betrayals, Becker's school-day caper offers a steady stream of surprises and laughs. Darren maintains a deadpan, noir-ish tone ("No one must know of my covert actions. Therefore, I use ultimate discretion and a steady hand to obtain my ink") even when, for instance, he's using his own urine as invisible ink. Ages 8–11. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Welcome to the Family

Mary Hoffman, illus. by Ros Asquith. Frances Lincoln/Otter-Barry (PGW, dist.), $17.99 (32p) ISBN 978-1-84780-592-8

Hoffman and Asquith, the duo behind The Great Big Book of Families and The Great Big Book of Emotions, explore the many permutations families can take and the feelings they can engender. With forthright prose dashed with humor, Hoffman covers living habits (solo, with friends, as families), different ways children join families (through childbirth, adoption, fostering, or fertility treatments), and families that might include same-sex parents or stepparents ("This is called ‘blending' two families. But it's not like blending a milkshake; it doesn't always go smoothly"). Asquith's loosely rendered cartoons do their own part to keep the mood upbeat—a recurring teddy bear character offers running commentary ("Making teddies seems easier," it thinks during a discussion of the male and female cells needed to make a baby), and in a scene in which soon-to-be stepsiblings meet, the two sets of kids (and their dogs) all glare at each other, driving home Hoffman's point about milkshakes. With a cast that's diverse both ethnically and in terms of familial makeup, this is a solid resource for families seeking to demystify a variety of topics related to home life. Ages 5–8. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Extraordinary Mr. Qwerty

Karla Strambini. Candlewick, $16.99 (32p) ISBN 978-0-7636-7324-6

Melbourne-based artist Strambini redefines the "thinking cap" metaphor in this visually dynamic debut. Mr. Qwerty, who loves to tinker, keeps "his ideas under his hat," quite literally. His bowler hat opens to reveal scientific instruments that provide visual evidence of the mechanical inclinations of his mind. For all his powers of invention, Mr. Qwerty fears "that people would think his ideas were strange, and he felt completely alone." He fails to notice that other people wear hats, too—boaters, fedoras, cloches—with hinged lids that flip up to expose their own passions, whether for exploration, aviation, chemistry, food, or even butterflies. "But when his ideas escaped, as ideas often do," writes Strambini, "they GREW, and GREW, until they were SO BIG... that something had to be done about them." Strambini's playful renderings suggest an engineer's plans, scribbled in charcoal-colored pencil on a putty-and-cream background and enlivened by red and blue detailing. Mr. Qwerty's magnum opus is shown to be an enormous, bird-shaped, Rube Goldberg contraption that distributes ideas (in egg form) to the masses, subtly putting forth the idea that creativity and intellectual exploration create an atmosphere that fosters more of the same. Ages 5–8. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Once Upon an Alphabet: Short Stories for All the Letters

Oliver Jeffers. Philomel, $26.99 (112p) ISBN 978-0-399-16791-1

With wry humor, equally droll ink illustrations, and a solid dose of alliteration, Jeffers (the Hueys series) creates delightful mini-narratives for each letter of the alphabet. In the B story, "Burning a Bridge," the antagonistic relationship between neighbors Bernard and Bob reaches a breaking point: "But Bob learned an important lesson that day" after he burns down the bridge separating their homes—and traps himself on Bernard's side. In addition to the rampant alliteration in the stories and poems ("Mary is made of matter./ So is her mother./ And her mother's moose"), Jeffers's illustrations are full of unnamed people and objects that correspond to each letter, providing opportunities for interactive reading. Grim touches appear here and there—because half of Helen's house fell into the sea, getting up on the wrong side of the bed proves disastrous—but the overall mood is one of playful mischief. One thing is certain: if Jeffers's determined problem-solving duo, Owl and Octopus—who pop up throughout, rescuing drowning cucumbers and recovering stolen x-ray glasses—don't get to headline future books of their own, it'll be downright criminal. Ages 3–5. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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