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Children's books

Animal fantasy for middle graders

“The babies of a first-time possum mother must have names that begin with the letter A,” and Appleblossom, smallest of her siblings, gets to pick her own moniker. Possum education is all about acting (“playing possum,” obviously), but our heroine has to react for real when she falls down the chimney of a “small people’s” house. Disaster threatens when the resident hairy monster (aka dog) gets a whiff of her. Meanwhile, two intrepid brothers bent on rescue get help from an unexpected quarter. Family loyalty wins out in this simple, unaffected tale with lovable Gary Rosen illustrations.

Malcolm under the Stars

Malcolm is a pet of the McKenna Elementary fifth-graders. He’s also a member of the Midnight Academy, composed of all the other school pets. As the story opens, the critters learn that the school faces demolition unless it can find money for renovation. But hints of a hidden treasure raise their hopes, if only they can find it. This is the second volume in a series, and necessary plot threads carried over from the first can make the story a little hard to get into. But whimsical grammar tips and vocabulary footnotes make it stand out.

The Wild Ones 

The author credits Brian Jacques’ classic Redwall series for this story about an orphaned raccoon. Seeking refuge in the city with his “historian” uncle after his parents’ murder, young Kit finds himself embroiled in a battle between his fellow wild creatures and “the flealess” (domesticated animals) for possession of Ankle-Snap Alley. The former have claimed ownership since an agreement sworn on the mythical “Bone of Contention,” a relic the pious church mice insist is real. Frequent animal violence (wrought by sharp teeth and claws) may be too much for sensitive readers, but vibrant writing and touches of humor make this a promising series opener.

The Sign of the Cat 

So far as Duncan McKay knows, one thing distinguishes him: He speaks Cat. The family kitty taught him, but swore him to secrecy. Duncan chafes under too many secrets, including his father’s identity and why his mother won’t let him excel at anything. When a visiting national hero invites Duncan aboard his ship, the boy thinks his fortunes have changed—until he wakes up from a drug-induced sleep and finds the ship headed out to sea. What is the man’s interest in him? Or in cats? The twisty plot will keep readers guessing as Duncan accepts his dangerous calling.

Spotlight

Minecraft, a video game that allows players to construct and operate 3-D worlds, is so huge among younger gamers that the 8 percent sales increase in nonfiction children’s publishing this year is largely due to two Minecraft guidebooks. With that in mind, it’s not surprising to see The Unofficial Holy Bible for Minecrafters join the franchise.

Unlike The Brick Bible, where Legos are used to deconstruct Christianity, this storybook appears to take the Bible seriously, in spite of some puzzling errors and unbiblical depictions. The book pictures God as a white-robed figure in the creation story, and in the story of Abraham, his wife Sarah is depicted with more faith than her husband. Dialogue is sometimes overly casual (Jesus calming the storm: “Knock it off!”), and the blocky, pixilated style of illustration may give parents a headache. Yet for all these flaws, the text includes more actual Scripture than most Bible storybooks. For die-hard Minecrafters, it could be worthwhile. —J.C.