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Home is where the love is

NOVEL OF THE YEAR: A New York story about a family in Harlem and a misanthropic landlord shows the benefits of living in close quarters

Home is where the love is

(Jeff Wales)

The Vanderbeeker family lives in a century-old brownstone in the heart of Harlem: Papa and Mama (who are called Papa and Mama), 12-year-old twins Jessie and Isa, 9-year-old Oliver, 6-year-old Hyacinth, and 4¾-year-old Laney, along with an assortment of furry four-footed family members. As their story opens, Papa announces he has good news and bad news. First the good: “You kids all know how much Mama and I love you, right?”

This leads the older ones to suspect a divorce in their future. But (thankfully) no—the bad news is that their landlord Mr. Beiderman, who lives on the top floor, is not renewing their lease. With only five days until Christmas, the incipient lump of coal in their stocking is a 30-days’ notice. Not just to move out of the building, but most likely to say goodbye to the neighborhood, where Papa has lived since he was a boy.

This cannot stand. The kids must find a way to ingratiate themselves with the reclusive, misanthropic Mr. Beiderman so he’ll change his mind. Hence a series of schemes that even a gregarious philanthrope could see are bad ideas. Hijinks ensue, with disappointing results. Christmas is looking grim until a kind of miracle occurs.

In spite of our culture’s incessant tampering with it, and our own tendency to spoil it, the family structure God created both endures and endears. In The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) a biracial family united by blood, spirit, and emotion grows up together in neighborly surroundings. In the day-to-day business of growing up, they not only tease, irritate, and (sometimes) fight with each other: They’re also learning together. Close, not-always-voluntary proximity pushes us to learn lessons such as tolerance, patience, and (most of all) loving each other and our neighbors.

There’s a name for this: home, with “the crack in the shape of Eastern Europe on the ceiling” and “the whistling of pipes in the walls.” The challenge to stay home may wrap up too neatly, but the Vanderbeekers have faced real difficulties with real tenacity and plenty of laughs. We look forward to further adventures on 141st Street.

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Glaser (Handout)

Debut author Karina Glaser grew up as Karina Yan in California, where she read continually and developed a taste for classic fiction like Anne of Green Gables. Stories like The Saturdays and All-of-a-Kind Family planted daydreams about raising a family in an urban setting. The dream eventually came true as she first moved to New York to attend college, and finally settled in Harlem with her husband and two daughters.

The Harlem of the Vanderbeekers, despite the presence of smartphones and internet searches, will remind some readers of the 1950s. It exists today for Karina Glaser: “My kids love visiting their favorite neighbors and have an ongoing game of tag with the building superintendent. … It’s a lovely place to raise a family, and I wanted to capture that feeling of community in The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street.”

New York City with its brownstone canyons and numbered streets going up to three digits may seem like a foreign setting to youngsters in suburbia, but they’ll bond with the rambunctious good humor of this family. That would please the author, who hopes “the themes of empathy, compassion, and kindness come to mind” amid their enjoyment.


RUNNERS-UP: NOVEL OF THE YEAR

Almost Paradise

Corabel Shofner

Ruby Clyde Henderson’s life changes when Carl, her mother’s feckless boyfriend, yanks her out of bed in North Carolina, crams her in a car, and heads for Texas with Ruby’s mom. But that’s nothing to what happens when Carl holds up a convenience store and Mom, though innocent, ends up in jail. Ruby has no place to go but Paradise Ranch, a dismal plot in central Texas presided over by her aunt, an Episcopal nun. “Sister Eleanor” is far from warm, but in the hour of Ruby’s greatest need she embodies a clear picture of redemption in the name of Christ. (Ages 10-14)

Henry and the Chalk Dragon

Jennifer Trafton

Henry is in trouble at school, not for misbehavior but for nonconformity. In honor of National Vegetable Week, all his classmates are drawing bunnies and carrots, but Henry would rather draw anything else—and does draw everything else in his sketchbook, which he refuses to show. But when the chalk dragon he created peels off his blackboard-door and follows him to school, Henry can no longer hide his artwork. This lighthearted fantasy is a treat for the eye and ear with its imaginative pictures and clever wordplay. It also shows how our God-given talents are for sharing, not hiding in sketchbooks. (Ages 8-12)

Jasper and the Riddle of Riley’s Mine

Caroline Starr Rose

When Jasper’s teenage brother Melvin lights out for the gold fields of Alaska, the enterprising 10-year-old follows with a knapsack and a washboard. Melvin would rather not have little brother tagging along, but the boys are soon grateful for each other’s company when facing treacherous terrain and perfidious prospectors. Early on, Jasper acquires a clue to finding an abandoned mine and rumored treasure—and less honorable parties are also searching. One desperate strait follows another, but help always arrives, sometimes in the form of Christian missionaries. Jasper’s good humor and lively voice engage readers throughout this Yukon adventure. (Ages 10-14)

Tumble & Blue

Cassie Beasley

Blue Montgomery is saddled with a family curse, confirmed when his distracted father dumps him at his grandmother’s house for an indefinite stay. One dubious benefit is overeager Lily (aka Tumble) Wilson, who is determined to help Blue snap out of his “loser” funk. The curse proves hard to lift, as its roots go deep into the Okefenokee Swamp, where lurks the legendary gator known as Munch. Meanwhile Blue’s extended family converges on the ancestral home hoping to claim a final blessing from the matriarch. Quirky characters and supernatural “Southern Gothic” elements make this a fascinating read with echoes of Eden. (Ages 10-14)


HONORABLE MENTIONS

Our children’s fiction committee believes five other novels merit recognition. Beyond the Bright Sea (Dutton Books) by Lauren Wolk shows a girl, growing up on the Maine coast with her foster father, who learns of her mysterious origins. Caleb and Kit (Running Press Kids) by Beth Vrabel pairs a boy struggling with cystic fibrosis with a girl overcompensating for a neglectful parent. Sherri Winston’s The Sweetest Sound (Little, Brown and Company) introduces Cadence, a painfully shy African-American girl who hides her singing talent under a bushel. In Wishtree (Feiwel & Friends) by Katherine Applegate, the narrator is a wise old red oak who overcomes neighborhood discord with sympathy. Darcy Miller debuts with Roll (HarperCollins), in which a displaced boy and troubled girl bond over the fascinating sport of training roller pigeons. —J.B.C.

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.