Boys Take the Spotlight

(published in the Raleigh News and Observer, 3/27/16; Charlotte Observer 3/24/2016)

Midway through presenting last year’s Wilde Award books, I realized almost every one had a female protagonist. I began missing male characters and books that typically emphasize action and adventure. 2016 has introduced me to fascinating new heroes.

In Rodman Philbrick’s “The Big Dark” (Blue Sky Press, ages 9-12) lights pulse above Charlie Cobb’s small new Hampshire town like “a lightning bolt hitting a box of crayons.” Electricity is gone, and Charlie, plunged into emotional and physical darkness, tries to care for his anxious younger sister and his diabetic mother. Disasters mount. Braving a blizzard seems minor when a racist extremist threatens the citizenry, Charlie’s mother runs out of medication and Charlie skis alone to the nearest hospital, 50 miles away. Philbrick builds tension with sensory descriptions, cliff hangers, moral dilemmas and engaging characters.

The hero of Iain Lawrence’s “The Skeleton Tree” (Delacorte, ages 9-12) is 12-year-old Chris. He is still making peace with his father’s death when he’s invited by “daredevil” Uncle Jack to sail from Kodiak, Alaska, with Frank, a sullen 15 year old. Within 20 pages, Chris is plunged into the sea, the boat sinks, his uncle is swept away, he must save the sulky boy. They are washed up on a remote island where grizzlies and wolves roam. Frank constantly cites Chris’ inadequacies while a nearby tree filled with coffins is a specter of their potential future. The characters’ evolution combines with secrets that spice up this survival story.

John Claude Bemis’ “Out of Abaton: The Wooden Prince”(Hyperion, ages 9-12) is the first of a series. The Italian setting and magical underpinnings enrich the quick-paced tale of a cruel doge seeking the Ancientmost Pearl which insures eternal life and an automaton named Pinocchio who seems less mechanical than he should be. Bemis retains familiar characters and elements and stays true to the emotional tones, but renews the classic tale with a wondrous cast drawn from traditions such as dijinni and undine. These creatures gain dimensions when woven into the intricate world Bemis constructs, and his detailing makes the fantastical real.

The hero of Leslie Connor’s “All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook (HarperCollins, ages 9-12) is an 11-year-old whose unspoiled innocence comes from being tenderly raised in a co-ed correctional facility. Perry’s enthusiasm over small pleasures reveals an appreciation born from his sheltering background, and his life is rich with wisdom gained from his mother and caring male inmates. When an insensitive ruthless district attorney gets Perry removed from his home, the irony is painful. /As Perry’s mother burns with fury at legalities separating her from her son, Perry seeks the truth behind his mother’s imprisonment. The poignant story unites themes of truth, justice, family and home.

Sara Pennypacker’s “Pax” (HarperCollins, ages 8-12) is Peter’s pet fox. Boy and animal are inseparable until war comes and Peter must live with his grandfather and set the fox free. Alternating chapters recount their parallel journeys to selfhood. Living in the wild, dependent Pax questions domesticity and his boy’s flawlessness. Peter, at first a submissive boy, has dark feelings lurking below his acquiescence. As Peter hunts for Pax, his more genuine self emerges. Rounded minor characters in this haunting story emphasize themes of war, sacrifice and survival, and lead the protagonists into their fullness.

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