Billy Miller is a normal 7-year-old boy who begins second grade fearing he may have lost some smarts due to a summer vacation accident. In this episodic novel for early readers, Billy meets and masters, with the help of a loving family and supportive friends, the small challenges that unfold over the year. Aside from a stay-at-home dad and a passing reference to a classmate’s “two moms,” the story feels comfortably old-fashioned, with likeable characters in circumstances readers ages 6-8 can relate to.
During the great passenger pigeon migration of 1871, a ceiling of birds crossed the American plains and established a huge nesting area near Lake Placid, Wis. When the pigeons left, so did Georgie’s sister Agatha, with companions she barely knew, inspired by her foundational text: “The heavens declare the glory of God.” Three weeks later, the local sheriff brings back a ruined body in a dress last seen on Agatha, but Georgie suspects it’s not her sister. With a single-shot Springfield rifle and a determination worthy of True Grit’s Mattie Ross, she embarks on a quest for the truth and finds more than she bargained for, especially about herself.
To 11-year-old “Little Man,” a hedge of treacherous consonants separates himself and the world. He stutters so badly he can communicate only in short bursts. Taking over his best friend’s paper route for a month will be a stretch, especially when collection Saturdays roll around. But the experience will change him, partly through his acquaintance with the sultry redhead and the adventurous book-lover along his route, and by a serious threat to his beloved Mam, the family’s black housekeeper. Set in early-1960s Memphis, Paperboy includes some sexually charged (not explicit) content, but it deals honestly with varieties of religious experience and illuminates the challenge of stuttering to a degree unmatched.
This year’s Newbery winner is the lively (indeed, almost frantic) tale of an 11-year-old, self-described cynic (Flora) and a superhero squirrel who gets his powers and name from a run-in with a Ulysses vacuum cleaner. Flora, who acquired her cynicism when her parents split up, needs to recover some zest for life, and Ulysses becomes the unlikely instrument. After leaping from dumb squirrel-hood to full awareness of the wonderful world around him, he can barely contain himself. An outsized plot and characters, told in comic-book style and illustrated likewise, will engage young readers, provoke some laughter, and perhaps even redirect a few budding cynics.
May 2011 saw the publication of Divergent, a young-adult dystopian novel that instantly became a bestseller (and will soon debut on the silver screen). Two things about the author, Veronica Roth, always appeared in press packets: (1) her age, 22, and (2) her Christian faith. Divergent pictures a postapocalyptic society divided into five factions, somewhat similar to Plato’s Republic in that each serves a social need. The balance between them is fragile, and human nature (seen as inherently flawed) eventually sparks a revolution. Insurgent (part 2) appeared in 2012, followed by Allegiant last November. The final volume of the trilogy opened the point of view to more characters, exploded a number of surprises, ratcheted up the violence, and came to a conclusion best described as controversial. Christian readers disagree about whether Allegiant lived up to the potential of the series, but Roth remains an author to watch. —J.B.C.