In 20 years of reviewing children’s books, I have never seen a fall line-up with so many novels by award-winning authors. When a publicist suggested this might be another trickle-down effect of the Harry Potter phenomenon, I could see the parallels. Like J.K. Rowlings, these authors have enough clout to take risks, enough gift and passion for their subjects and characters that they can return successfully to familiar landscapes and enough invention to intrigue fans.
These proven novelists have a long history of creating books that succeed. While Rowlings, who has produced four books in four years, allows Harry and his Hogwarts world to grow, these authors grow by challenging themselves in each work they undertake.
E.L. Konigsburg, Silent to the Bone (Atheneum, $17, ages 10-14)
While Rowlings writes an escapist novel that pleases both children and adults, her structure is simple and she relies on patterns. In the past several years, E.L. Konigsburg has shown us her gift for taking complex ideas and expressing them with a spare, seemingly simple poetic voice that captivates readers. But when the covers of the book close, readers will be haunted by how it all hangs together. Her originality of form and word unite to transform both her characters and her readers, and the result appears effortless. The plot of her newest novel seems derivative of recent news reporting.
Thirteen-year-old Branwell Zamborska, while calling 911 after his infant sister slips into a coma, is suddenly struck dumb. Vivian, the au pair, grabs the phone and explains that he has dropped and shaken his sister. Readers might be suspicious, but the police transport Branwell to a juvenile behavior center. Konigsburg elevates the mundane with the complicated relationship she unveils when Connor, Branwell’s closest friend, determines to get him talking again. Only Connor seems to understand that “Branwell was screaming on the inside. And no one heard.” Konisburg shows respect for words and for her reader’s intellect and conveys the complexities of relationship with family, friends and oneself. She captures the confusion and shame of first sexual stirrings, and masterfully depicts the sensitivity and thoughtfulness of two very bright children.
Barbara Park, The Graduation of Jake Moon (Atheneum, $15, ages 9-12)
With Rowling’s book, you know what you’ll get in each new volume. The same is true of Barbara Park. When you see her name on a book’s cover, you expect humor and characters who are very human and real. In her latest book, Park’s humor takes a back seat to her commitment to character. Her new hero is Jake Moon, the son of a single mother, who has grown up with his supportive, nurturing Grandfather Skelly. Now Skelly has Alzheimer’s disease and Jake is resentful, embarrassed and overwhelmed with responsibility. The book might have been funny if Jake weren’t hurting so much.
Park is true to Jake and lets him take the lead. She does the best she can for him by giving him the gifts of intelligence, honesty and the sardonic sense of humor so many middle-schoolers understand. Tortured while writing a book report, Jake comments: “Trust me, if anyone in your class ever looks amused while you’re giving an oral book report, it’s because your zipper is down.”
Gary Paulsen, The Beet Fields: Memories of a Sixteenth Summer (Delacorte, $15.95; ages 12 and up)
Gary Paulsen has the same reputation as Rowlings for exciting the most reluctant readers. But to me, his greatest books are those in which he tells the truth about what he has seen, experienced and knows. His newest book is his most honest. Paulsen explains in his introduction, “small portions of this book appeared in softer forms, shadowed and sketched and changed into gentler fiction … But here it is now as real as I can write it, and as real as I can remember it happening.”
Paulsen’s 16th summer is the year in which he ran away from home, and he faces sexual, emotional and intellectual coming-of-age by himself while picking beets, fleeing police and working with the carnies. The memoir escapes harshness because of the extraordinary detailing and imagery that Paulsen displays as skillfully as his truths. He brings you into his world as he remembers eating “cold beans and slices of week-old bread from the metal pie pans nailed to the table to be hosed off between shifts of eaters,” and following the Mexican workers whose “white shirts always drifted ahead of him, farther and farther out like white birds flying low.” These serve as an anchor as Paulsen recaptures the strange mix of growing awareness and fading innocence.
Rowlings has readers lusting after another return to the place she’s created, and when returning, brings them into a familiar world with just a few changes. These authors come back to the familiar settings and subjects, but make them new again.
Lois Lowry, Gathering Blue (Houghton Mifflin, $15, ages 10 and up):
In many ways, Lowry’s new book seems a companion to her wildly popular, Newberry-Award-winning The Giver. Both books land us in futuristic places where we follow the paths of children who discover secrets of the societies in which they live. While The Giver takes apart an apparent utopia that is highly technical and rigidly controlled, Gathering Blue shows us “a community of disorder, savagery and self-interest.”
Into the midst of the chaos she creates, Lowry plunks down the orphan Kira, a young weaver with artistic sensibilities and a twisted leg which should have condemned her to the Field of Leaving, a place where the dying and deformed are left for beasts to devour. But Kira is saved by her artistic sensibilities. She is placed in an elegant wing of the Council Edifice and told she will mend and then finish a ceremonial robe that holds the story of the civilization.
The main character in The Giver leaves his civilization, but Lowry states in her foreword, “I made Kira an artist with the kind of vision and power that artists have. At the conclusion of the book, she holds in her hands the fragile beginning of a peaceful future.”
Like Rowlings, Lowry excels at creating a world filled with invention. The particulars will capture readers. But Lowry has much to say about how an artist contributes to a hostile world. Kira knows herself as an artist, and can tell when she’s losing “the joy she had once felt when the bright-colored threads took shape in her hands, when the patterns came to her and were her own.” Her pain and suffering has not only made her strong, but given her enough courage to change the world and stay true to her vision. At the end of the novel, she has the opportunity to leave and reunite with those who love her in a more peaceful world. Kira chooses to stay and feels the plant that holds blue “gathered in her hand, and she could feel it quiver, as if it had been given breath and was beginning to live.”
Sequels are loaded with reader expectation, especially if the character is loved. These artists have created satisfying follow-ups. Like Rowlings, they have succeeded largely because their characters grow.
Jack Gantos, Joey Pigza Loses Control (FSG, $16, ages 10 and up)
In Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key, a National Book Award finalist, Gantos introduced a young boy learning to cope with ADHD. He’s got medicine and strategies in the sequel, but he’s still the same Joey. In the opening scene, he sets up living room pillows as targets, accidentally pierces his dog’s ear, then solves the problem with a hoop earring. Soon after, Joey’s off to live with his heavy-drinking, egocentric father for the first time. He’s also living with his grandmother who switches from crabby to cruel as quickly as she alternates smoking a cigarette and gulping fresh air from her oxygen machine.
Readers will sympathize with Joey as his father rationalizes drinking, throws out Joey’s medicine and continually disappoints him. But none of these situations take away Joey’s original retorts and comical, unique solutions to problems. Joey’s biggest growth might be his knowledge of self and how he has applied these to better control his life. His wisdom and his experience with failure show when he sizes up his grandmother. He knows she “was always going to be her two selves–one nice and funny, and the other mean and scary. She wouldn’t change, because she never felt that anything she did was wrong. So all the changing was up to me, and that was okay because I knew I could be wrong most of the time.”
Richard Peck, A Year Down Yonder (Dial Books, $16.99, ages 10 and up)
A Year Down Yonder seems more a companion than a sequel to Peck’s 1999 Newberry Honor book, A Long Way from Chicago. Peck shows his brilliance in setting up parallel structures and creating two very different books. In the first book, Joey and his younger sister, Mary Alice, spend a series of summers with their cantankerous, eccentric grandmother, and Joey tells the story. The second book takes place in 1927. Joey’s working with the CCC planting trees out west, their father is out of work, and 16-year-old Mary Alice must spend a year with her grandmother enrolled “in a hick school.” There is continuity of place and character in both books. The small town’s culture is still the same: Those who are snobby have no right to be, those who have no money are rich in some way, and everyone fears Mary Alice’s grandmother.
Mary Alice’s voice and sensibilities are different from Joey’s. Her voice is softer, more poetic and inquisitive. As much as Joey loves his grandmother, his understanding comes in glimpses and never runs quite as deep as Mary Alice’s perceptions. Shared history and gender has allowed Mary Alice to understand and trust her grandmother’s Robin-Hood style of justice. She knows the deserving always receive big slices of pie, whether it’s pecan or humble.
Soon Mary Alice begins to see, think and talk like her grandmother–from pithy, startling analyses like the time she sizes up a bully and declares, “If you’re going to read minds, start with a simple one,” to her last tender and surprising comment about her grandmother, who has “eyes in the back of her heart.”
Sarah Dessen, Dreamland (Viking, $15.99, ages 12 and up)
Chapel Hill author Sarah Dessen revisits familiar themes from past books, but she definitely boosts the intensity in her latest novel. Her heroine, Caitlin, is dealing with the growing away of her elder sister. When Caitlin finds equilibrium in involvement with a boy of dubious character, he ushers her into a world of violence and drugs she’s not prepared to handle. Dessen weaves dreams into this story so well that they become a structure that deepens the book.
For the past four or five years, young adult novels have been more intriguing than picture books. This year the trend continues, but here is one standout.
Jacqueline K. Ogburn, The Magic Nesting Doll, illustrated by Laurel Long (Dial, $16.99; ages 5 and up)
This original tale by Durham author Ogburn is a lovely blend of tradition and invention. A familiar structure is provided by fairy tale elements like the magic of three, good and evil, and the victory of the underdog. These gain a Russian flavor when the heroine, Katya, uses a magical matryoshka, or nesting doll, to free the Tsarevitch from the evil spell of his Grand Vizier. Ogburn’s transports readers with a melodic, repeated description of a time that is “always winter without thaw, night without moon, and dark without dawn.” Katya is aided by magic creatures that fit the setting well, but it’s Katya herself who unfreezes the prince with a kiss and marries a “man whose heart melts at love’s first kiss.” The illustrations by Long are a lovely whirl of rich embroidery, Russian icons and the elegance of royalty.
All these authors, like Rowlings, have confidence in their ability and their audience. This makes for language that is evocative, ideas that are original, and books that will endure. They may not be as well known by the general public as Rowlings, but they should be.