The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy
By Jeanne Birdsall. Alfred A. Knopf. Ages 8-12 years.
Like the Berkshires cottage that the Penderwick family has rented for August, this story is a light-filled surprise. Their widowed father is a botanist, and the girls range from 13-year-old Rosalind, the practical one, to shy little Batty, 4, who insists on wearing butterfly wings. The cottage is part of a large estate, Arundel, owned by an icy-hearted grande dame, her put-upon son, Peter, and a gardening staff considerably hotter than old Ben Weatherstaff of Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden. There's a gently retro quality to it, but the effect isn't quaint but classic, rather as if our eyes are cleared to look at the essentials of friendship and family. Good read-aloud.
By Peter Benchley. Delacorte. Ages 10-14 years.
Yes, this is Peter "Jaws" Benchley, but this book isn't a quickie retelling; it's a nonfiction collection about Benchley's lifetime experiences with sharks. This book's gift is that it puts sharks where they belong, in the context of the oceans. Benchley cites many specific ways we do not show enough respect for the nature and power of the world's oceans, and especially the complicated ecologies of predators within them. This is a good book to read on the way to a beach vacation - with short, well-paced chapters - making any two-legged splasher a more respectful and safer one.
Heroes Don't Run: A Novel of the Pacific War
By Harry Mazer. Simon & Schuster. Ages 10-14 years.
In this concluding volume of a trilogy, Adam Pelko is 17, and his father has already died on Pearl Harbor Day. His mother won't sign the papers for Adam to enlist underage; she has lost enough. Adam, however, arranges to spend time with his East Coast grandfather, a World War I veteran whom he can push into signing for him. What follows isn't a jolly adventure. A close look at what basic training is really like is followed by Adam's service on Okinawa, until he's sent home wounded. This book isn't an anti-war tract, but, as you know if you're familiar with the World War II Pacific campaigns, Mazer has chosen his setting carefully to present the human cost of war.
Day of Tears
By Julius Lester. Jump at the Sun/Hyperion. Ages 11-14 years
Julius Lester is extremely skilled at weaving historical moments into fictionally amplified tapestries. The moment: "On March 2 and 3, 1859, the largest auction of slaves in American history took place in Savannah, Georgia." The event is remembered as "the Weeping Time" because for the two days of the sale it rained torrentially, then stopped at the conclusion of the sale. Calling the book a novel in dialogue, Lester presents a series of speeches by those involved, white and black, on all sides of the sale. Lester doesn't thunder about the breakup of families and the traffic in human beings; he builds slowly, voice by voice, as the characters speak from their ages in 1859 and from the perspective of years later. There's much here for family discussion.
Good Brother, Bad Brother: The Story of Edwin Booth and John Wilkes Booth
By James Cross Giblin. Clarion. Ages 12-15 years.
By putting the less-well-known brother's name first in his title, James Cross Giblin gives you an opening hint about how complex this book is. There were, for example, times in their shared lifetimes when Edwin was "the bad brother," his alcoholism all too evident on stage, and the future assassin of Abraham Lincoln was the one who cheered his mother and sisters. Giblin does a brilliant job of presenting the lives of theatrical entertainers from the early 19th century onward, as well as the surging currents of opinion within the country concerning slavery and Lincoln himself. For at least one of the Booth boys, you know the ending, but it's a tribute to Giblin's almost-hypnotic mustering of detail that you don't want to put the book down until the very end, at Edwin's death in 1893. There's also a good discussion of sources.
Let Me Play: The Story of Title IX, the Law That Changed the Future of Girls in America
By Karen Blumenthal. Atheneum. Ages 10-15 years.
Remember? Title IX was passed in 1972 as one of the Education Amendments to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but this isn't a book with a narrow focus, such as how girls joined Little League play (though that story is included). Karen Blumenthal effectively argues the point of her subtitle - that Title IX "Changed the Future of Girls in America" - as she marshals page after page of detail about just how few females had equal educational access to certain fields before 1972 and how that has changed. After a well-chosen opening look at the lack of scholarship opportunities available to Olympic medalist Donna de Varona (Sports Illustrated called her a "brilliant girl swimmer") in 1964, Blumenthal goes on to show how Title IX itself came about. Among the many individuals she chronicles, U.S. Rep. Edith Green of Oregon, persistent and politically savvy, plays a starring role. Don't miss this stirring and specific story.
Hot Air: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Hot-Air Balloon Ride
By Marjorie Priceman. Atheneum. Ages 4-8 years.
Before the first balloon flight to carry people, in November 1783 in France, the Montgolfier brothers had experimented with a flight of barnyard-animal passengers. Marjorie Priceman has lighter-than-air fun with what that flight might have been like ("The author heard this part of the story from a duck, who heard it from a sheep ... "), and that tale is conveyed wordlessly, in a series of pictures that the youngest readers will delight in observing. The animal passengers acquire clothes from clotheslines, are spattered by fountains and beleaguered by birds, before landing safely "in fine fluff and feather."
Tutankhamun: The Mystery of the Boy King
By Zahi Hawass. National Geographic. Ages 8-11 years.
Zahi Hawass, famous as a field archaeologist and head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, has written a book carefully geared to the age of its target audience. Not taking on every question about the vexed history of King Tutankhamun, Hawass approaches the subject as children might. What about the daily life of the boy king? What games might he have played? How good are our guesses about what he looked like - either facially or in body type - and how did he come to die relatively young? Hawass doesn't hesitate to say that multiple answers are suggested for many questions. Overall, a good combination of history, science and wonder.. . .. . .
Mary Harris Russell teaches English at Indiana University Northwest.