Summer is only halfway through. Here’s a fresh list of reading suggestions.
“Ella Enchanted,” by Gail Carson Levine
Older readers will be enchanted by this highly original novelization of Cinderella. At birth, Ella is cursed with the “gift” of obedience by a foolish fairy. When she is presented with a direct order - from anyone - she must obey, whether she is told to fetch a cup of tea or jump off a cliff.
Ella’s mother realizes early on the dangers of the gift and she is Ella’s staunch protector, as well as her beloved companion. When her mother dies, a heartbroken Ella is left with her preoccupied and insensitive merchant father. Sent off to finishing school with the obnoxious daughters of a wealthy widow, Ella must fend for herself. The curriculum at the finishing school is agonizingly dull for Ella. And the widow’s eldest daughter figures out that Ella must obey her orders and puts her through torture.
So Ella escapes and sets off to find the fairy Lucinda, and plead with her to take back her “gift.” This is a tale filled with richly interesting characters: fairies, ogres, giants, wicked stepsisters, and, of course, a charming and sensitive prince. Most interesting of all is Ella, herself, who is smart, brave, moral and funny. It’s a wonderful story, one of the best books of the year. (HarperCollins, ages 8 and up, 232 pgs., $14.95)
“More Stories Huey Tells,” by Ann Cameron
This is Cameron’s fifth book about Huey and his big brother Julian. Each easy chapter book contains a series of heartwarming, funny stories about a delightful family. In this volume Huey works in unusual and creative ways to save his dying sunflowers, campaigns to get his father to quit smoking, celebrates Julian’s birthday and almost gets buried alive. Besides being fine stories on their own merit, the Julian and Huey books help fill a big need - the need for everyday stories about black families. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ages 6 and up, 118 pgs., $13.)
“Jacob Two-Two’s First Spy Case,” by Mordecai Richler
Jacob Two-Two is the youngest of five children. He’s so nicknamed because he has to repeat himself to be heard. In this, the third Jacob Two-Two adventure, Jacob’s school gets a horrible new headmaster, I.M. Greedyguts, who hires a cook, Perfectly Loathsome Leo Louse, who cooks revolting school lunches. He teams up with his next-door neighbor, Barnaby Dinglebat, who calls himself “Spy X.” Together they fix Jacob’s school problems, with much intrigue (even a chapter in mirror-writing) and hilarity along the way.
This, and the other two Jacob Two-Two books, will be more appreciated by children than their parents (lots of gross humor), but kids will love them, especially those who are Roald Dahl fans. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ages 6 and up, 152 pgs., $16)
“Outrageously Alice,” by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
My 11-year-old daughter impatiently awaits the arrival of each new Alice book. Same goes for all of her friends, and a huge number of middle school girls across the country. Alice is helping to ease all these girls into adolescence, as she goes through some of the same joys and tribulations they will soon experience. In each book she’s a little older, and usually wiser.
In this volume, Alice enters eighth grade tired of being the same old Alice. But is dying her hair green the best way to become outrageous? Or being a bridesmaid for her brother’s ex-girlfriend? She knows she’s not ready to be a grown-up when she’s invited to a lingerie shower. A warning: this scene gets a bit explicit, but I trust Naylor with my daughter’s sensibilities. (I figure she’s going to be hearing about this stuff anyway.) And the wedding story line has a heartwarming conclusion. There’s a good Alice Fan Club online at http://www.simonsays.com/alice. (Simon & Schuster, ages 11 and up, 133 pgs., $15)
“Basher Five-Two,” by Capt. Scott O’Grady with Michael French
My 8-year-old son spotted this book next to the computer. “If you’re going to review that, Mom, I’ll be a witness. It’s good!” Unfortunately, you can’t see on paper the emphasis he put on the word “good.” Read it as “riveting,” or “thrilling” or “I couldn’t put it down.” (He didn’t.)
My son is a good reader, but like many boys I’ve encountered he is very picky. (One fourth-grade boy, also an excellent reader, once said to me, “Every book I read is good, because if it’s not good, I don’t finish it.”) Here’s one for the boys (and anyone else who likes adventure stories). It’s an inspiring tale: straightforward, exciting, patriotic and full of fascinating details. It’s also the story of a hometown Spokane hero.
Air Force pilot O’Grady was shot down during a peacekeeping mission over Bosnia. O’Grady ejected just seconds before his F-16 fighter jet exploded. During his five-mile parachute descent to ground, O’Grady watches the burning wreckage of his plane. He also surveys military convoy vehicles, woods that would provide good cover and open fields that would not.
His safe touchdown is the beginning of a five-day ordeal of hiding, running, eating plants and bugs, and longing to see his family again. It’s a great adventure story but also a tale of rock-solid values. O’Grady believes in family, God, country and hard work. Much celebrated after his safe return to the United States, O’Grady downplays his role as a hero, focusing instead on his rescuers and others he says have been through worse ordeals in service to their country. I took my son to hear Capt. O’Grady speak a few weeks back. Ben got his book autographed. The message: “Do well in school! God Bless.” Whatever one’s views about the military, O’Grady seems deserving of a child’s admiration. (Doubleday, ages 8 and up, 134 pgs., $16.95)
“Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio,” by Peg Kehret
This is an inspiring true story by a Washington state author who is known for her children’s fiction (“Terror at the Zoo,” “Cages,” “Sisters Long Ago”). In 1949, Peg Schulze was 12. Her life was full of family, friends, and planning for the seventh-grade homecoming float. On homecoming day, during choir class, she noticed a twitching muscle in her left leg. A few hours later, she was in bed with muscle spasms, aches everywhere and a 102-degree fever. Before noon the next day, she’d been diagnosed with polio. By afternoon, she was in a polio ward 100 miles from home. By nightfall, she was paralyzed.
This is a beautiful book. Kehret writes with immediacy and emotion in spite of the 40-plus years that have passed since her ordeal. She is self-deprecating at times, but Kehret was clearly a brave, determined girl, with devoted parents who played a major role in her recovery. She spent seven months away from home in Minneapolis University Hospital and in Sheltering Arms rehabilitation center, in the process establishing important relationships with doctors, therapists and fellow polio patients. Her parents never missed the chance to visit.
At Sheltering Arms, their Sunday visits also brightened the lives of her roommates, none of whom had parents who could - or would - visit. By the time she goes home, she is walking with braces, and not long after without them. This book will be enlightening for children, for whom polio is history because of a sugary liquid they are given by their doctor. It will also be of interest to adults who lived through the polio epidemics. It’s also just a plainly wonderful story. (Albert Whitman, ages 8 and up, 184 pgs., $14.95)
“Violet: Flower Girls #1,” by Kathleen Leverich
Like it or not, children love series books. It’s easy to understand. Children hate to bid a permanent farewell to characters they’ve grown to care about. Unfortunately, many series books are of dubious literary value.
It might be tempting to dismiss “Flower Girls” as yet another weightless series, but read one before you do. The books - “Violet,” “Daisy,” “Heather” and “Rose” - are nicely written, with interesting plots, humor and well-developed characters. They’d even be fun to read out loud. The unifying theme of these early chapter books (reading level 2.6) is the Flower Girls club, four girls with floral names who want to scatter petals in front of brides. They spend summer weekends sitting on a bench in Pleasant Park, watching newly married couples be photographed. The girls each eventually get to be flower girls, but there’s more to each story.
Shy Violet is chosen to be in her cousin’s punk wedding, and instead of pink lace, gets to wear purple mohair, an orange miniskirt and high-tops. Those “magic clothes” help her become a bit bolder. Daisy has always been the prettiest, most athletic, and best at everything. She’s in for a shock when she learns she must share flower girl duties with the three “enchanting” granddaughters of the woman her granddaddy is to marry. Heather’s brother is marrying the daughter of a wealthy diplomat, and her parents are worried about Heather’s tendency to be outspoken. And Rose has mixed feelings about her mother’s wedding, after which she’ll have a new stepfather. Just-right illustrations are by Lynne Woodcock Cravath. (HarperCollins, ages 5 and up, about 90 pgs., $3.95 each)