Ivan is a gorilla—”four hundred pounds of pure power”— who lives in a seedy roadside attraction in Washington state. “Gorillas are not complainers. We’re dreamers, poets, philosophers, nap-takers.” Though confined to a glass-walled cage all day, he is blessed in his friends: motherly Stella the elephant, cynical Bob the dog—and Julia, the janitor’s daughter who gives Ivan his first paper and crayon, introducing him to art. When baby elephant Ruby joins the menagerie, Ivan is touched by her vulnerability and longs to protect her, but how? His story is quiet and winsome, and worthy of a place alongside classic animal fantasies like Charlotte’s Web.
In 1939, Adolf Hitler was preparing to invade Poland and the scientific community was all abuzz with the possibility of atomic fission. The best intelligence suggested the Germans were using fission to develop a bomb of unimaginable destructive power. Albert Einstein advised President Roosevelt that the United States must counter with its own atomic program, and thus begins a sprawling, multifaceted story involving four nations, many nationalities, spies and counterspies, genius and folly. At Los Alamos, J. Robert Oppenheimer led “the world’s largest collection of crackpots”—riddled with Soviet spies—while resistance fighters in Norway spearheaded the effort to derail the Germans. It’s a complex story well told.
Mo LoBeau, of Tupelo Landing, N.C., dates her original luck from her birth during a hurricane, when her unknown “upstream mother” strapped the newborn to a window shutter and set her adrift. The baby came to rest in the arms of another lost soul: the Colonel, who misplaced his memory and drove his car into a tree just outside Tupelo Landing. Luckily the town is full of lovable, quirky characters, most of whom are on hand when a series of murders poses a mystery to solve. Mo’s voice is original and Mo herself is one tough cookie, but occasionally the narrative breaks out in violence that seems incompatible with its folksy tone.
London and Lancaster are the settings for this atmospheric, magical-historical story of an evil puppeteer and his three child victims. Though of widely varying backgrounds—Lizzie Rose is an orphan, Parsefall a street urchin, and Clara a doctor’s daughter—each nurses a secret pain, ambition, or weakness susceptible to Master Grisini’s enticement. All three are drawn into a deadly game between the puppeteer and Cassandra Sagredo, a witch who needs the children for her own purposes. The villains are truly villainous and the story delivers some seriously chilling moments. Though marred by profanity and mildly vulgar language, it’s ultimately a tale of redemption not without Christian overtones.
The normalizing of homosexuality continues in children’s literature, most often as “coming out” stories in teen fiction. But School Library Journal reports that more LGBT students are bullied in middle school than anywhere else, and the American Library Association welcomes gay-themed novels at this level. Two recent, acclaimed titles for 10- to 14-year-olds don’t advertise themselves as “gay-themed,” and may take readers by surprise:
Drama, a graphic novel by Raina Telgemeier, employs a school musical production to track the relationships of sixth- to eighth-graders. Gay and bisexual “orientations” emerge as normal expressions of sexuality in a feather-light story.
See You at Harry’s, by Jo Knowles, is primarily about a death in the family, but the 14-year-old brother’s developing relationship with an older boy forms an ill-fitting subplot. Whether jokey or serious, these novels push the impression that any way a young person needs or wants to sexually express himself demands the readers’ acceptance. —J.C.