Crispin: The Cross of Lead
Recommended Age: 10+
This winner of the 2003 Newbery Medal "for the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children" is set in England in the middle ages, the time of the crusades. It begins in a little village whose landlord (a Knight who is in the current crusade) has left his lands under the management of a steward named John Aylward.
Among the dirt-poor denizens of the manor are a single mother named Asta and her son, who goes by "Asta's Son" or else "Hey you," and they do not really fit in with the other peasants. The brutality and bleakness of the feudal system are very painfully exposed in this wonderful story, which begins when Asta's son loses his mother, then for reasons he himself does not understand, is forced to flee for his life as a "wolf's head" (which means, by order of John Aylward, anyone can kill him without being guilty of murder).
The boy falls into the clutches of a big, burly minstrel type with a hearty laugh, a loud voice, and a mysterious hint of danger about him, who goes by the name of Bear (in my mind's eye I see John Rhys-Davies playing him). Slowly the boy learns to trust Bear and grows from feeling a helpless prisoner to having an almost father-son relationship with him, as the boy also learns that his given name is Crispin and that his true identity is the reason everyone wants to kill him.
Things come to a head in the town of Great Wexly where, on the feast of St. John the Baptist, Crispin finds himself caught between John Aylward's motive for killing him and the danger Bear's political activities have gotten him into, and Crispin must risk the life he has just begun to really live in order to save Bear.
Besides being a magnificent document of a period in English history, it is also a gripping adventure and a portrait of the growth of a beautiful character (Crispin) and his developing relationship with the unlikeliest of father figures. It will make your heart pound and, I dare say, it will make you cry. It's an amazing little tale. It captured my heart. I couldn't recommend it more highly.
Don't You Know There's a War On?
Recommended Age: 11+
The award-winning author of Crispin: The Cross of Lead comes through with another moving, historical novel for young readers. This one takes place in 1943 Brooklyn, when everyone's Dad was fighting in World War II and everyone's Mom seemed to be Rosie the Riveter, and they had rationing, and blackouts, and war stamps, and collecting, and newsreels and serials that the kids watched at the movie house on Saturday mornings.
For best friends Denny and Howie, one of the things that keeps them going during these hard times is their crush on their fifth-grade teacher, Miss Gossim. Only when Howie is playing at being a "junior G-man," he accidentally finds out that his favorite teacher is about to be fired. And as he continues his snooping around, he learns the awful, unfair reason for it. But what can a few kids do about it?
Told in the speaking style of a grammatically unpolished, 1940s Brooklyn boy, this is another charming story that will make you laugh, think, and maybe cry. It's also an interesting glimpse into a moment in time that your grandparents may have lived through, when radio ruled, and headlines like "To Save Gas, States Asked to Keep 35-Mile Speed" thrilled readers. If you like a simple story well told, here's one you'll enjoy.
Recommended Age: 10+
Mangus is an old illusionist who does a good job convincing people that he is a real magician. He does his job too well, in a small Italian kingdom where superstition and paranoia run high. Denounced as a sorcerer, he barely manages to avoid execution, living under house arrest with his wife and a boy servant, Fabrizio.
One night Mangus and Fabrizio are summoned before the royal family, where Mangus is ordered to free the Princess Teresina from being haunted by a ghost. The problem is, the King really believes Mangus has the power to do it. And though doing real magic could get him killed, Mangus doesn't really believe in magic, or ghosts either. Yet his life depends on solving the mystery.
Mangus is a brilliant man of reason, no doubt, but the real hero of the story is his clever, street-wise, and terribly loyal servant Fabrizio. Up and down the secret passages of the castle, Fabrizio finds himself tangled in more and more lines of intrigue. The princess wants to avoid a bad marriage to the treacherous Count Scarazoni. The Count seems to be plotting to take over the throne. Another member of his conspiracy turns up dead after trying to talk to Mangus. The princess claims that the ghost is that of her missing brother, trying to get revenge for a wrongful death, but some people deny that he is even dead. And other people seem to be pursuing their own private agendas, including a queen and a kitchen boy.
Is there really a ghost? Has the prince really been murdered? Will the truth serve the interests of the kingdom? These questions take second place in Fabrizio's mind, as the life and freedom of his master-- and his own as well-- hang in the delicate balance.
It is a clever mystery, full of historical color, ghostly apparitions, witty hocus-pocus, and palace intrigue. And the final solution brings out both the luck and the pluck of our adorable young hero. Well worth a look!
No More Magic
Recommended Age: 8+
Newbery Medal-winner Avi's first book is this charming mystery about a boy named Chris whose bicycle disappears on Halloween night. Somehow he comes to believe this was connected with a mysterious figure in a warlock costume, who was seen flying through the air on a bicycle. And being a fan of comics and the Oz books, Chris believes real magic may be involved. So does his best friend Eddie, and his new friend Muffin, though his two friends suspect each other.
And why shouldn't they? Muffin claims that the warlock costume was hers, but it was stolen from her. And Eddie claims that he went to the Halloween parade, where someone in a warlock costume won the top prize, but Eddie's name isn't on the list of contestants in the newspaper...and neither is the name of the winner.
Chris's brother Mike and their parents are no help, because they don't believe in magic at all. Could it have something to do with the disappearance of Muffin's parents?
Throw in Muffin's unhelpful aunt, and a shifty junk dealer, and the town drunk, and a mayor whose "secret identity" is a shoe salesman, and you get a twisted little mystery for young readers. Chris' determination to believe in magic is very winning. And though I personally saw the solution to the mystery coming from the very beginning, I was totally charmed by the innocence and the belief of the children in the story. A great debut for a terrific author!
Perloo the Bold
Recommended Age: 12+
The author of Tales from Dimwood Forest brings us this intriguing fantasy novel for the young. Two tribes have been at war, on and off, as far back as history remembers: the rabbit-like Montmers and the coyote-like Felbarts. Among the few Montmers who know anything about this history, is bookish, shy Perloo. But when the old Granter of the Montmers is on her deathbed, she decides to elevate Perloo to be her successor...instead of her ambitious son Berwig.
Naturally, Berwig doesn't like this. He decides to claim the throne for himself, denouncing Perloo as a traitor and assassin, and having him imprisoned and later (when Perloo escapes) hunted. All this is bewildering for a young Montmer who cares nothing for politics, doesn't want to rule, and can't even handle a pike properly.
Aided by the lovely Lucabara, and driven into enemy territory, the Montmers' unlikely and unwilling new leader must fight back against the tyrannical and warlike schemes of Berwig and his treacherous counselor, Senyous. And who can forget the vile Gumpel, who is said to ooze into a room like a spreading stain.
It won't be easy for Perloo, who is neither strong nor physically brave. On one side are all his own people, who think he is a traitor. On the other side are the Felbarts, who think he is a spy. And the only people who don't think he's bad, don't think he's much good either. But Perloo has his honesty, his humility, and his extensive knowledge of history and the teachings of the great magpie teacher Mogwat to aid him. Plus, he throws a mean snowball. Will that be enough to stop a war, restore his people's freedoms, and change the course of Montmer history?
It's an exciting and funny tale, with a hero one can respect and feel protective of at the same time. It's neither a realistic tale about rabbits (like Watership Down) nor a run-of-the-mill, cartoonish story about talking animals. It's truly an original fantasy, and ever so much fun.
TALES FROM DIMWOOD FOREST
Recommended Age: 10+
I won't sugarcoat it. My heart broke on page 6 of this book. I'd tell you why, but I just don't want to talk about it. Other than to say, I would have saved myself a lot of pain by reading this book first, instead of Ragweed. More on that below.
Nevertheless, this first book in the Tales from Dimwood Forest is an exciting, moving, and winsome adventure of a small creature-- in this case, a female deer mouse who lives on the edge of Dimwood Forest-- going up against a mighty predator, in this case an owl. A determined and brave little sweetheart faces the cold, brutal nature of the world, and does something to make it a better world. At least in her little corner of it.
Characters familiar to readers of Ragweed (the prequel to this book) make their appearances, but essentially this is Poppy's story, and the deep sorrow that comes into her life, and what she risks to save her family that is caught between starvation and the deadly talons of Mr. Ocax. She breaks rules, she escapes Ocax, she crosses a river on her own, makes an unlikely friend, and fights a desperate battle to prove that her family can move to the forbidden farm on the other side of the forest.
It's a lovely story, but I have to admit, my heart is still broken. I am still stunned by what happened on page 6. I blame Harper Trophy, which lists Ragweed as the first book in the series, though it was written and published third. Sure, it depicts events that take place before this book and Poppy and Rye, but they are meant to be read first. It really makes a difference. I know, because I read the prequel first, and then got nailed by page 6 of Poppy. It had a very disturbing effect - in fact, until I checked the publish dates, I was starting to think of Avi as unbelievably cruel! I've seen the same kind of thing going on in other series (such as Narnia and Horatio Hornblower) and it really irritates me. This is a perfect case.
So I urge you to disregard the order these books are listed on the "books by Avi" page and trust me, read Poppy first. In the proper order (Poppy first), maybe you can look at page 6 and say, Oh well, it's a hard world. That's what Poppy is up against. And she makes quite a fetching little heroine, doesn't she? In the wrong order (Ragweed first), you really feel her sense of loss. I advise young and sensitive readers to trust me on this one.
Poppy and Rye
Recommended Age: 10+
This is the sequel to Poppy, and the second of four books in the Tales from Dimwood Forest.
Poppy, our little deermouse heroine, has set out to find the family of her late fiancé Ragweed, so she can tell them how he lived and died. She cajoles her porcupine friend Ereth into going along. Wouldn't you know it, Poppy meets Ragweed's brother Rye, and the two fall in love at first sight.
But before anything can come of it, Rye has become a hostage to a beaver "construction company" that has been turning the peaceful brook into a pond filled with beaver condos. These are the same beavers whose pond has driven the golden mice out of their longtime nest, to a dank hole under a bolder in higher ground. In their cheerful, progress-worshiping way, the busy beavers plan on turning the pond into a lake - and now they have their sights set on the boulder. They want to use their little mouse prisoner - Rye - as leverage to get the other mice to move away.
Poppy is determined not to let that happen. She wants to save Rye, and spend the rest of her life with him. She inspires the mice to fight back against the beavers, with a little help from a prickly friend. And in a daring jailbreak plot, Poppy infiltrates the beaver lodge in an attempt to set Rye free.
Will there be more loss and heartbreak? Or will the small and plucky prevail again over the big and greedy? The answer to that, and the question of Poppy and Rye's future happiness, depends in part on the outcome of a very, er, sticky love triangle. Or maybe a love-hate square, if you count dead mice.
It's a charming adventure. The beavers make for unusual villains, but they might remind you of certain people we all know. Their cliché-ridden, nasty-nice chatter is irritating, while the mice (and porcupine) stand out as fully-fleshed characters with emotions that move you, trouble you, and delight you. There is a healthy dash of humor, including twisted expressions such as "Wait till you can see the gap between their teeth!"
And once again, I advise against reading the series in the order Harper Trophy arranges them. I recommend the Avon Camelot edition instead. Both contain the same lively illustrations by Brian Floca. Enjoy!
Recommended Age: 10+
In the third of his four Tales from Dimwood Forest, Avi shares with us the youthful adventures of a spirited, golden mouse named Ragweed, as he leaves his peaceful home and family along the brook to explore the world. At a fork in the road, where he has a choice of going to the city or to the forest of Dimwood, he chooses the city. A city where a whole neighborhood, near the railroad tracks, has been abandoned by men and allowed to become Mouse Town.
From the beginning, however, Ragweed learns that some cats in Amperville don't like the idea of Mouse Town. Two cats in particular-- a white house cat named Silversides and a sewer cat named Graybar-- form F.E.A.R. (Felines Enraged Against Rodents), bent on destroying the mouse subculture in Amperville.
But Ragweed joins forces with a mouse rock band, fronted by a dyed-haired, earring-toting female named Clutch, and a white pet mouse who has run away from the same house Silversides lives in. Together with some friends, they plan a new mouse club-- Café Independent-- and a new mouse attitude of fighting back against cats. Who will get the upper paw? It comes down to a matter of courage, cooperation, friendship, and cleverness.
This is one of the most adorable stories I have read in the genre of "talking animals and especially mice." With deft humor and personal warmth, Avi creates mouse and cat characters who are really thinly-diguised people, dealing with real-people issues like anger management, coming of age, loyalty to your friends, fighting for freedom, and looking for your place in the world.
I strongly urge you to ignore the order in which Harper Trophy lists the books in this series, and read this book after Poppy and Poppy and Rye, the order the books were written and published. Even for those of you who insist on reading this book first, because of the way the series is listed or because it is a prequel, I know you are going to fall in love with Ragweed. When you do, no doubt you will want to read the other books in this series, starting with Poppy. All I can say is brace yourself.
Recommended Age: 10+
The fourth book in the Tales from Dimwood Forest focuses on your favorite, free-swearing, prickly porcupine, Ereth. Feeling ignored by Poppy and her family on his birthday, Ereth moodily stalks off into the forest in search of salt. Instead, he finds a vixen caught in a trap, and her dying wish is for Ereth to find her three kits and take care of them.
Grumblingly, grudgingly, Ereth does so, forming a most unlikely family circle with sprightly young foxes Tumble, Nimble, and Flip. He swears that it's only until their ne'er-do-well father returns from wherever his "business" has taken him. Together the prickly vegetarian and the inexperienced little hunters learn to live in a harsh winter environment where, among the many other dangers, humans have left numerous traps in their neighborhood.
Besides all that, Ereth is being stalked by one of a porcupine's few natural enemies: a large, weasel-like killer named Marty the Fisher. And as far as Marty is concerned, it's only a matter of time until the old porky exposes his soft underbelly...especially when he tries to indulge his one obsession: salt.
When they finally come face to face, it's hard to decide what you want to happen. After all, fishers are an endangered species. But Ereth has learned so much and come so far from the selfish, crotchety creature he was when we first met him. Their final battle has pretty high stakes, then. For us readers, a lot hangs on whether Ereth's birthday ends up being a happy one or not...
Yes, I know there is another book in this series, titled Poppy's Return. I haven't read it yet. All things in due time!