“Chasing Shadows,” by Swati Avasthi, with graphics by Craig Phillips (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 320 pages, $9.99, ages 14+)
Savitri and the twins Corey and Holly have been best friends since they were toddlers. Now that they’re seniors in high school, change is in the air — but their bond is still strong, especially when they’re free-running together. (Free-runners use the city as a jungle gym, scaling walls and vaulting over obstacles with a trained ease.)
“Chasing Shadows” takes place on the streets of Chicago and opens with the kids bonding around ideas of courage and nobility gleaned from comic books, Hindi tales and the free-runners’ ethos. Soon enough these bonds, and these ideas’ connection to reality, are tested by a random act of violence that shreds their world.
Avasthi’s second novel (she won a number of awards for her first, “Split,” in 2011) is a resonant and deeply felt adventure that explores loyalty to self and to those you love, madness and reality and desire, and the powerful pull of imagined worlds. It’s a fast-moving but expansive account, illuminated by Craig Phillips’ graphic interludes, which convey the feeling of a parallel world more convincingly than words could.
“The Real Boy,” by Anne Ursu (HarperCollins, 352 pages, $16.99, ages 8-12)
Outside a beautiful city named Asteri, a small boy named Oscar is housed in a cellar, working for a powerful magician. He’s an odd boy, often confused by social situations, acutely perceptive but imprisoned in a sense of his own difference. His dearest friends are a collection of clever cats. As things begin to go wrong for Asteri, Oscar works with an apprentice healer named Callie to discover the secret at the heart of the malaise.
This description makes “The Real Boy” sound like a typical magic-and-heroism book, but it isn’t that. As she showed in her previous book, “Breadcrumbs,” Anne Ursu excels at pairing a fully real child with a fully imaginary setting, and in “The Real Boy” this kind of writerly magic is woven into the plot lines of the book. Ursu approaches “magic” as if it were indeed real, takes it seriously and unravels some of the consequences it could have. The attempt to eradicate fear and pain, for instance, merely displaces them.
There are some problems with causation in the complex plot, in part because of Ursu’s pairing of psychological realism and inventive fantasy, but the book works because of her linguistic inventiveness: We see the world through Oscar’s “not right” synesthetic sensibility, and when she gets it right it’s a wonderful experience: “His head was full of ice and noise, and it was everything he could do to sort through it all.” Or, when he receives a bag of just-baked bread, “He held the bag close, let it warm his chest. The smell pulled at him like a wish.”
“The Winter of the Robots,” by Kurtis Scaletta (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 272 pages, $16.99, ages 10+)
In a lovingly drawn north Minneapolis setting that’s hugely appealing, especially to locals, kids unravel a tragic old story of technological overreaching and confront scary military robots. Helped by the old guys of the neighborhood and some young Russian immigrants, they concoct technological marvels of their own.
The idea of seventh-grade kids being able to do what these kids do is a little incredible, but then that’s what the best kids’ books since Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” are for — to create wonderful dreams of prowess that are just barely possible. Kurtis Scaletta is no newcomer to the genre: His “The Tanglewood Terror” and “Mamba Point” are award-winning and well-loved excursions into this territory.
What makes this book is the true affection the author seems to have for his flawed, loving, striving characters, from the kids to the parents to the corner guys who hang out at the local greasy spoon — even the homeless guy at the laundromat. They seem very real; there’s not a perfunctory (or normative) character in the story. And they manage, unlike many Minnesotans, to express somehow how they feel to each other, no matter how circuitously.
This is a ripping yarn with a big heart and a lot of wit and invention.
“The Strangers,” by Jacqueline West (Dial Books for Young Readers, 308 pages, $16.99, ages 8-12)
This is the fourth volume in the series “The Books of Elsewhere.” For readers who would like some back story, the website www. thebooksofelsewhere.com will supply it.
The series recounts the adventures of Olive Dunwoody (and her distracted mathematician parents) in their old stone house on Linden Street, which is rather aggressively occupied by the various astral projections of the former owners, the McMartin family. The house contains portals in the form of paintings to the mysterious realm Elsewhere; Olive has access to these through a pair of glasses she has found in Agnes McMartin’s old room. Agnes would like the specs back — badly. Just how badly is what drives the propulsive plot of this episode in Olive’s ongoing adventures.
Olive and her allies (the wise cats who are her familiars, the little boy Morton who is strangely stranded between this world and the other, and some new friends) are ranged against the power of Agnes and her legions of spirits. Olive must deal with the kidnapping of her parents and some serious treachery.
Jacqueline West has created a world in which a quite normal middle-schooler goes to school, enjoys a good Halloween party, worries about making friends and foils the undead on the side. Olive’s a kind of Nancy Drew of the occult, and her story has much of that series’ salted-peanut addictiveness.
Ann Klefstad is an artist and writer in Duluth.