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Chickadee, by Louise Erdrich

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Tim Lee, Raleigh News & Observer

“Nothing Special,” by Geoff Herbach

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"The Fairy Ring," by Mary Losure

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"Silhouette of a Sparrow," by Molly Beth Griffin

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"The Second Spy," by Jacqueline West

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SUMMER BREAK: A roundup of fiction for teens and tweens by Minnesota writers.

  • Article by: JACKIE REITZES
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • August 4, 2012 - 5:30 PM

In the last month of school vacation, maximize your summer reading pleasure with one of these new selections by Minnesota authors.

"Chickadee," by Louise Erdrich (HarperCollins, $15.99, ages 8-12)

In the latest installation of Erdrich's "The Birchbark House" series, the year is 1866, and Omakaya's family moves to the Great Plains. The story takes flight with the separation of her twin boys: Chickadee is kidnapped by two louts. Left to his own wiles, Chickadee must escape enslavement, mosquito swarms, snake infestations, starvation, suspicious nuns and a disgusting concoction called Bouyah in order to be reunited with his family. Along the way, he learns to lean on his spirit namesake, the chickadee, who teaches that "small things have great power."

Erdrich employs the same clean, elegant writing style in the Birchbark series as she does in her novels for adults. Themes of migration, sharing land with white, well-meaning clerics and environmental depletion subtly underscore the adventure narrative. Descriptions of life on the plains from the vantage point of a covered wagon recall other beloved standbys, such as Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" books. Erdrich's voice is a welcome addition to the historical fiction of the time.

"Silhouette of a Sparrow," by Molly Beth Griffin (Milkweed Editions, $16.95, ages 12 and up)

The Roaring '20s as seen through the eyes of a 16-year-old girl, on the brink of revelation. Garnet Richardson sets off to spend the summer with distant relatives, leaving behind a shellshocked father and a would-be fianc she doesn't love. In a lakeside Minnesota resort, Garnet comes to learn about the local ornithology population (birds are her passion), the pride that comes with being a working girl and the budding feelings she has for a flashy flapper girl named Isabella.

The coming-of-age story features a thoughtful protagonist with a gentle voice. Opulent setting descriptions complement interesting historical detail and beautiful language. The motif of different bird species to begin each chapter serves as a neat structural metaphor for various characters in the story (not unlike Annie Proulx's knots in "The Shipping News"). Garnet's feminist and environmental concerns are relevant for a young contemporary audience without feeling anachronistic to the narrative.

"Nothing Special," by Geoff Herbach (Sourcebooks Fire, $9.99, ages 12 and up)

In the follow-up to the popular "Stupid Fast," Felton Reinstein returns as reluctant hero -- grappling with family matters, newfound athletic prowess and the pangs of long-distance love. The epistolary novel is addressed to Reinstein's maybe-girlfriend, Aleah, who has been abroad for months.

What distinguishes both books is the inescapable energy and humor of the 17-year-old protagonist's voice. Through his myriad missteps and strained relationships, we fully feel the awkwardness, angst and exuberance of being on the brink. Felton is a self-proclaimed narcissist ("a medical term for somebody whose head is stuck in his own ass"), but despite his selfishness and vulnerability, he remains a sympathetic character throughout.

Timely Felton-isms ("a tiny man in my hamstring," "Squirrel Nut," "supercharged nitroid Kangaroo power," "Holy Balzac") express teenage sensibilities without feeling forced. The prickly language is authentic to the age.

Sports abound in the story -- track, football, tennis and Frisbee. The writing is particularly fresh in these descriptions, which depict all the internal rhythms, workings and mantras of an athlete in a critical moment.

"The Second Spy," by Jacqueline West, illustrated by Poly Bernatene (Dial Books, $16.99, ages 10 and up)

The third volume of the bestselling "The Books of Elsewhere" series begins with an anxious Olive Dunwoody, who -- despite the protection of magical cats and eyewear that can beam her into paintings, aka Elsewhere -- has every right to be concerned. In addition to staving off the evil former owners of her house and liberating the paint-people imprisoned in Elsewhere, there's the first day of junior high to contend with.

West brings her poet's touch, along with a generous serving of whimsy, to these pages. Olive's everyday problems make her relatable and sympathetic, while her superhuman problems tickle the imagination. Note, however, that this novel can be somewhat confusing if you haven't read the previous books. Keeping track of the many characters, paintings, cats and wrongdoings can be patience-trying unless you've read the first two volumes, and the ending is less a conclusion than a cliffhanger.

"The Fairy Ring: Or Elsie and Frances Fool the World," by Mary Losure (Candlewick Press, $16.99, ages 10 and up)

The true story of two British cousins who caught the attention of everyone from the creator of Sherlock Holmes to the BBC for taking photographs of fairies during World War I. Told with a fairy tale's sense of magic, the book at times feels like historical fiction and other times like biography -- with actual letters and photographs to supplement the narrative.

Jackie Reitzes is a writer and editor in New York.

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