Outsmarting Nazis, fighting fate or keeping siblings safe from county social workers, five new young-adult novels feature tough but vulnerable protagonists.
"Shadow on the Mountain," by Margi Preus. (Amulet Books, ages 10-14, $16.95.)
"The Norwegians' intelligence is a little slow, and they are suspicious of foreigners; therefore the benevolent German must not lose his temper but must take matters calmly. ... It is better to explain things to them in a simple, matter-of-fact way, or, still better, to adopt a playful tone."
Period details, like these real-life instructions given to German soldiers serving in Norway, bring the brutality of the Nazi occupation vividly to life in Duluth writer Margi Preus' new historical novel, "Shadow on the Mountain." They also help explain how 14-year-old Espen rises so naturally up the ranks of the Norwegian resistance movement. With a dimbulb look that keeps soldiers from being too curious about the contents of his rucksack, he is encouraged to keep "looking stupid. That should work splendidly for you."
Preus, whose "Heart of a Samurai" was a Newbery Honor Book, based her protagonist on a real-life spy named Erling Storrusten, and she uses historic events such as the Quisling government's 1942 ban on red hats and the arrest of 1,100 Norwegian teachers to drive home the growing divide between Espen and soccer teammates more sympathetic to the new regime. As Espen's responsibilities escalate, from delivering underground newspapers, to spying inside the Germans' compound, Preus' deeply researched historic novel never loses sight of the timeless fun of outrunning the bad guys.
"Fitz," by Mick Cochrane. (Knopf Books for Young Readers, ages 12 and up, $16.99.)
Growing up without a dad, 15-year-old Fitzgerald is overdue for some quality father-son time. And now that he's discovered his child support checks are coming from an address across the river, he's determined to get some -- at gunpoint, if necessary. Although the latest young-adult novel from Mick Cochrane (a St. Paul native and University of St. Thomas grad) has a few moments of hair-trigger suspense, the slow burn of Fitz's yearning to know and be known by his father gives this coming-of-age novel its most affecting moments. "Sometimes Fitz would look at himself in the mirror, an expression of pathetic eagerness on his face. He was a dog in the pound, wanting to be adopted. He'd smile. What father wouldn't want this boy?"
Kidnapping his dad before the start of business, Fitz and his dad spend an uneasy day driving around St. Paul together, exploring the decisions that led to his father's disappearance from his life. Though the answers don't always satisfy, teen readers will enjoy the dysfunctional family road trip Fitz takes on some familiar streets, from St. Paul's Summit Avenue to Como Zoo's seal island.
"Iron-Hearted Violet," by Kelly Barnhill. (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, ages 8-12, $16.99.)
Thirteen-year-old Princess Violet is another heroine with a gift for telling tales -- especially after she and her friend Demetrius uncover the forbidden story of a banished god named the Nybbas. Though this fairy-tale fantasy is narrated by a court storyteller, Minneapolis writer Kelly Barnhill has fun challenging some of the conventions of the genre. Our heroine, for instance, is no enchanting Cinderella-type, and for a time, she may even prove to be the villain.
"Keeping Safe the Stars," by Sheila O'Connor. (Putnam Juvenile, ages 10 and up, $16.99.)
Fourteen-year-old orphan Kathleen "Pride" Star is resourceful and self-reliant -- maybe to a fault. When her grandfather, Old Finn, goes to the hospital with a fever, stranding her, sister Nightingale and brother Baby at a cabin in rural Minnesota, she'll tell any lie she has to to keep helpful neighbors, inquisitive adults and county social workers off her property. "Old Finn didn't believe in charity. He told us taking always ended up as owing, that people gave to get, that in the end, there wasn't a lender you could trust," says Pride, who hatches a plan to sell pony rides and popcorn in order to scrape together the money the Stars need to make it to Old Finn's hospital bed in Duluth.
Fans of O'Connor's finely written "Sparrow Road" will find even more to admire in this warmhearted novel, which sets Pride's ever-spinning lies against President Richard Nixon's impending resignation. With references that range from Duluth to Paul Bunyanland, Minnesota readers may also notice something familiar about these stoic North Woods types -- very quick to offer help to their neighbors, but very slow to ask for it.
"The Vengekeep Prophecies," by Brian Farrey, with illustrations by Brett Helquist. (HarperCollins, ages 8-12, $16.99.)
"Truth is a poison of last resort," according to the par-Goblin proverbs, so don't expect any member of the thieving Grimjinx clan to come clean about their latest con -- a strange tapestry that prophesies they'll be the saviors of the village of Vengekeep, where they are known to be frequent guests in the town gaol. In this lighthearted and freewheeling fantasy, St. Paul writer Brian Farrey has invented a funny and absorbing alternative universe where "Zoc!" is an epithet, "singemeat" is always on the menu and a story spun in "fateskein" can't help but come true. Fortunately, the error-prone but enterprising Jaxter Grimjinx and his accomplice Callie Strom are brave enough to try in this first of a trilogy perfect for middle-grade readers.
Laura Billings Coleman is a writer in St. Paul.