The Belle of Amherst leads some young friends on a grand adventure.
Drawing on Dickinson’s playfulness and delight in children, Mutén fashions this light verse story told from the perspective of young MacGregor “Mac” Jenkins, the pastor’s son who lived across the street from the Dickinson residence (in real life) and was a playmate of the poet’s niece and nephew. With the help of Phelan’s wispy, textured drawings, Mutén imagines the famously reclusive poet playfully disguised as “Proserpina—Queen of the Night,” leading her tiny band of “Amherst gypsies” on a midnight quest to spy the arrival of the Great Golden Menagerie and Circus at the Amherst train station. Both poet and children thrill at the opportunity to meet a fortuneteller and witness the unloading of exotic circus animals, but as they speed home to avoid being recognized, Mac falls and injures himself. Mac’s resulting convalescence, landing him “housebound / like a winter bee in the hive,” draws not only an unprecedented visit from “Miss Emily,” but the chance for her to treat Mac and friends to another tale. It also gives Mutén an apt occasion to weave in a bit of actual correspondence from the poet to the children outlining her wish: “Please never improve—you are perfect now.”
Uplifting and clever, Mutén’s tale also includes a layer of biographical detail sure to tantalize Dickinson lovers everywhere.
(biographical notes, bibliography)
(Verse novel. 8-12)
Black sixth-grader Jake Liston can only play one song on the piano. He can’t read music very well, and he can’t improvise. So how did Jake get accepted to the Music and Art Academy? He faked it.
Alongside an eclectic group of academy classmates, and with advice from his best friend, Jake tries to fit in at a school where things like garbage sculpting and writing art reviews of bird poop splatter are the norm. All is well until Jake discovers that the end-of-the-semester talent show is only two weeks away, and Jake is short one very important thing…talent. Or is he? It’s up to Jake to either find the talent that lies within or embarrass himself in front of the entire school. Light and humorous, with Knight’s illustrations adding to the fun, Jake’s story will likely appeal to many middle-grade readers, especially those who might otherwise be reluctant to pick up a book. While the artsy antics may be over-the-top at times, this is a story about something that most preteens can relate to: the struggle to find your authentic self. And in a world filled with books about wanting to fit in with the athletically gifted supercliques, this novel unabashedly celebrates the artsy crowd in all of its quirky, creative glory.
A fast and funny alternative to the Wimpy Kid.
After Castro’s takeover, nine-year-old Julian and his older brothers are sent away by their fearful parents via “Operation Pedro Pan” to a camp in Miami for Cuban-exile children. Here he discovers that a ruthless bully has essentially been put in charge. Julian is quicker-witted than his brothers or anyone else ever imagined, though, and with his inherent smarts, developing maturity and the help of child and adult friends, he learns to navigate the dynamics of the camp and surroundings and grows from the former baby of the family to independence and self-confidence. A daring rescue mission at the end of the novel will have readers rooting for Julian even as it opens his family’s eyes to his courage and resourcefulness. This autobiographical novel is a well-meaning, fast-paced and often exciting read, though at times the writing feels choppy. It will introduce readers to a not-so-distant period whose echoes are still felt today and inspire admiration for young people who had to be brave despite frightening and lonely odds. (Historical fiction. 9-12)