“Trash Mountain,” by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Chris Monroe. (Carolrhoda Books, 184 pages, $16.99.)
Little Nutley, a happy and sensitive red squirrel, has a fine life high in a tree with his parents. They feed him seeds and try to teach him the wisdom he’ll need to evade harm from the increasingly numerous gray squirrels who are taking over their piece of forest. Tragically, after Nutley leaves the tree on a brief foray, his parents die in a gray squirrel attack. Young Nutley is thrown into a life-or-death flight to Trash Mountain and its dangerous denizens — rats and gulls. There he finds surprising allies.
This is a gripping story, right-sized for children but with all the authentic drama of any novel. The illustrations by Duluth artist Chris Monroe — who certainly knows the heart of a squirrel — warm the book and pull it back from the dangerous edge of the didactic.
“The Sign of the Cat,” written and illustrated by Lynne Jonell. (Christy Ottaviano Books, Henry Holt and Co., 368 pages, $16.99, on sale June 16.)
Lynne Jonell has a wonderful turn of story when it comes to animals and their people, as seen in her previous novel, “Emily and the Incredible Shrinking Rat.”
Here 11-year-old Duncan lives a humble life on an island with his widowed mother, who persists in forbidding him to excel in anything. When Duncan defiantly earns a perfect score on a difficult exam, people begin to notice him — and he’s snatched up in a tumbling plot that hinges on his surprising gift: He can speak the language of cats. Betrayal, a princess, a tiger, kidnapping and a harrowing voyage ensue.
The whipsawing plot could be a bit difficult to follow for younger readers, but the dramatic satisfactions of the story punch right through any minor confusions. Flights of fantasy and rich description, a tiger named Brigadier and a kitten named Fia and a couple of credibly drawn youngsters — what more could a kid want?
“Tagged,” by Diane Mullen. (Charlesbridge, 288 pages, $16.95.)
Liam’s a 14-year-old Irish-American tagger who lives in the Minneapolis projects with his mom and a handful of siblings. He yearns to make his mark on the city walls with something bigger and stronger than just his tag, “St B.” When his older gangbanging brother talks him into tagging over a rival gang’s image, he becomes a target, and his mother sends him off to stay with her old friend, an artist with a house in a small town on Lake Michigan.
There Liam discovers that making art drives him; after a few stumbles, he falls into a scholarship to an art school. But he hears news that challenges this commitment: His family needs him. Can he be true to his newfound talent and his family as well? The telegraphic voice and short chapters in this first-person tale are good evidence of a kid who mainly communicates visually.
“Waiting for Unicorns,” by Beth Hautala. (Philomel, 240 pages, $16.99.)
Narwhals are the unicorns in question. Talia has traveled to the shores of Hudson’s Bay to find them with her whale-researcher father after the tragic death of her mother from cancer. Father and daughter are damaged by this loss, but in the far north Talia encounters people who will help her to come into her own, out from under the shadow of the death that has been hovering over her.
The book starts slowly, knitting together for the reader the texture of Talia’s life before and during her mother’s illness and its long, cold aftermath. In the far northern town of Churchill, the most sought-after thing never arrives; other things come instead — a profound insight for this debut novel.
“Wonder at the Edge of the World,” by Nicole Helget. (Little, Brown, 369 pages, $17.)
Hallelujah Wonder (known as Lu) dreams of becoming a scientist — in 19th-century Kansas, this was a far more Indiana Jones sort of life than it would be today. It involves her deceased father’s collection of wondrous artifacts, collected over years of exploration, now hidden in a mysterious cave on the prairie. One of these, the Medicine Head, has overwhelming powers, and Lu must (for complex reasons) transport it to Antarctica to keep it from the hands of a government agent, her father’s murderer.
Helget sets the stage with Bleeding Kansas, the abolitionist movement, a beloved sister, an escaped slave and a little dog. The result is a ripping yarn with an uneven voice. Though a bit bumpy, this ride could really be relished by the right kid.
Ann Klefstad is a writer, artist and critic in Duluth.