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A summer indulgence of children's books

  • Blog Post by: Laurie Hertzel
  • July 26, 2011 - 9:25 PM

 

Star Tribune illustration by Bruce Bjerva

Star Tribune illustration by Bruce Bjerva

When I was in my early teens, I landed a job shelving books at the public library in Duluth. It didn't pay well, and the work was tedious, but it allowed me to indulge my secret passion: children's books. Not picture books (though I do love them), but great engrossing novels written for teenagers. I brought home a bagful once a week, and spent the summers lost in the Secret Garden, or in World War II London with the Fossil family, or in Oregon, incognito with Greensleeves, or roaming the Highlands of Scotland with Kelpie, the water witch.

 I am old now, older than dirt, almost certainly older than the target audience for these books, but every now and then, I indulge again. This summer I've spent many weekends reading my way through a tall stack of books for middle-school kids and young adults.

In this coming Saturday's Variety section, you can read an interview with Red Wing, Minn., author Jacqueline West, whose second "Books of Elsewhere" novel has just been published, and read mini-reviews of four other books coming out by four other Minnesota writers.

To whet your appetite, here are a few other new books that deserve mention:

THE FLINT HEART by Katherine Paterson and John Paterson (Candlewick Press, pubs in September)

 You probably know Katherine Paterson as winner of the Newbery Medal (twice) and the National Book Award (twice). For this book, she teams up with her husband, John, to retell the story of the same name by the little-known writer Eden Phillpotts, who published it in 1910. I have not read the original version, but in the deft hands of the Patersons, it is a smoothly told, entertaining fairy story about a heart-shaped piece of flint which causes all kinds of trouble in the world by turning the heart of whoever possesses it to stone.

 In a press release, Paterson explains why they rewrote Phillpotts' story for a modern audience: "A book with subtle jokes about early twentieth-century British politics and a whole chapter devoted to a list of the variety of fairy life in Dartmoor was unlikely to be marketable in the twenty-first century," she said.

Rewritten it retains the whimsy but loses the bulk. And--a sign of twenty-first century success for sure--it's already been optioned.

NOAH BARLEYWATER RUNS AWAY by John Boyne. (David Fickling Books.)

More whimsy and magic here, nicely blended with reality and a healthy dose of Boyne's subtle humor. Noah Barleywater is an eight-year-old boy who runs away from home because --- well, he has a very good reason for running away. And it's not that his parents are mean to him, he insists, with a bit of indignation, when asked.

 He journeys through the dark forest to a village, and then to a farther village, and along the way he meets a tree who gets furious when he picks its apples, and a talking donkey, and his talky friend, an elderly dachschund. Eventually Noah finds his way to a toy shop, where the inanimate objects all are animate and where an elderly man sits carving a puppet. (Always a puppet. No matter what else he tries to carve, he always produces a puppet.)

Their conversation is laced with dark and funny stories from the woodcarver, and as they talk you slowly learn why Noah ran away, and who the old man actually is. This is a tender, moving and curious book, hard to categorize, easy to enjoy.

 THE PENDERWICKS AT POINT MOUETTE by Jeanne Birdsall (Alfred A. Knopf.)

 

Had enough fantasy? "The Penderwicks" is firmly set in the world of reality, one of those great old-fashioned books that would fit well on your shelf between the Elizabeth Enright books and maybe the Shoe books of Noel Streatfeild. I had no idea that books like this were still being written, but clearly others have paid better attention than I; Birdsall won a National Book Award for the first Penderwicks book.

 

In this, the third in the series, three of the strong, capable Penderwick children head off to Maine on vacation to stay with an aunt, while the oldest--the one they always count on to inforce the rules and solve the problems--heads elsewhere with a friend. The burden of being OAP (Oldest Available Penderwick) falls on the shoulders of second-born Skye, a nervous girl who spends most of the vacation worrying that she's going to screw up.

Not much happens here--the aunt conveniently sprains an ankle, which allows the kids great freedom. Middle sister Jane falls in love; the baby of the family, Batty, discovers a hidden talent; and longtime friend Jeffrey comes to visit and discovers a startling secret.

Birdsall balances old-fashioned storytelling and what might be known as "good clean fun" with the modern world. Yes, there are cell phones (but no vampires) but otherwise this charming story is timeless.

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