How trains changed the world; how war changes a teenage girl

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Hear That Train Whistle Blow! How the Railroad Changed the World

By Milton Meltzer. Random House. 176 pages. $18.95. Ages 12-15 years.

This one's not for the train fan or lover of bygone mechanics. There's abundant detail about the engines, the rails and bridges, but it's really the cultural changes and human fallout from this new technology that fascinate Milton Meltzer. For example, instead of getting solely caught up in the multiplying miles of track, Meltzer reminds us of how little safety was a goal in the early days. New and often hastily built machines, run by engineers who were only learning how, over hastily laid tracks and weak bridges: The recipe for trouble was, unfortunately, too often complete. The human side of railway construction also dominates, particularly with the Irish and the Chinese workers involved in railroading's westward expansion. Meltzer gives a chillingly accurate assessment of how little human lives, especially Chinese ones, were valued in this process.

How I Live Now

By Meg Rosoff. Wendy Lamb Books. 208 pages. $16.95. Ages 11-15 years.

Daisy is 15 and, in the landscape of books about teenagers, familiar enough. She's mourning her mother, dislikes her pregnant stepmother and is anorexic. As the novel opens, she's packed off to English relatives. And there the predictable ends and a tough, new novel begins. The initial contrast of her urban world with a country farmhouse, both rebuilt and falling-down retro at the same time, is startling enough, and, horrors, there's no working network for her cell-phone calls. Her aunt is away trying to avert some international crisis. Aren't liberally inclined grown-ups always talking about war impending somewhere? Suddenly, war does happen, in England. The causes, and the identity of the enemy, are never defined; all that interests us are Daisy and her cousins, fighting to remain together, to survive, becoming grown-up as they face the ugly changes inside and outside the war around them. Although the book does say, implicitly, "Don't whine where you are, teens; things could get a lot worse," the mood never seems simplistically cautionary. Daisy's believably increasing maturity in response to the increasing darkness of the world around her becomes all we want to watch.

The Sea of Trolls

By Nancy Farmer. Atheneum. 480 pages. $17.95. Ages 10-13 years.

If you're remembering Nancy Farmer's National Book Award-winning last novel -- The House of the Scorpion, a future fantasy about clones and drug trading -- switch gears. The scene here is the late 8th century, on the northeast coast of England and in the Viking lands to the north. Jack, only recently picked for training by the Bard in his village, has quite a story to tell when he and his little sister, Lucy, are snatched by Viking raiders. At this point the story voyages off into the land of northern myth and legend, with trolls, dragons, a lord named Ivar the Boneless and the historically real berserker warriors. There's a wry mix of seriousness and humor: Characters are named Magnus the Mauler and Einar the Ear Hoarder, and even shape-shifting trolls have bad-hair days. Amid the magical crows and speaking boars travel two youngsters with universal teenage anxieties about their places in life and just how much home really does mean to them.

Useful Idiots

By Jan Mark. David Fickling Books. 416 pages. $15.95. Ages 12 and older.

The year is 2255, and there's trouble near the Briease Aboriginal Reserve, the North Sea edge of what was once England, before the climate change, and is now known as the South Danish Islands. A small population of aboriginals insists on living nearby, using the old ways. When a skull appears on the beach, an anthropological team is brought in, including graduate student Merrick Korda. Anthropologists are shunned almost as much as aborigines, and politics abound in a jurisdictional fight over the case. Readers might note that there is no person even remotely close to being a teenager in this book; in Britain, it was marketed to the older as well as the young-adult market, and adult readers would feel no distance from it. A brilliantly tense, tightly plotted read, demanding close attention and the willingness to deduce from evidence. Like a good Tony Hillerman mystery, with a stunning ending.

A Dream of Freedom: The Civil Rights Movement From 1954 to 1968

By Diane McWhorter. Scholastic. 160 pages. $19.95. Ages 10-14 years.

Diane McWhorter grew up in Birmingham, Ala., in the 1950s and '60s, and she won a Pulitzer Prize for her adult book about that period, Carry Me Home. In this book, with the help of photographs, McWhorter breaks down the period's history into small chapters, some as familiar as the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision and the 1963 March on Washington. But she also covers other events that are less well known, especially by younger readers, such as the Albany Movement of the early 1960s and the Watts riots of 1965. The section on the Birmingham church bombing in 1963 is especially well done, covering the 2001 and 2002 convictions in that case as well as the Dynamite Hill bombings of the late 1940s.

Mary Harris Russell teaches English at Indiana University Northwest.

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