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Restless souls

Children’s novels of the year: When the ordinary becomes extraordinary

Restless souls

Jonathan Auxier (left) and Kekla Magoon (Auxier: Libby Hilf • Magoon: Curtis Sabir/WENN/Newscom)

In Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster by Jonathan Auxier (Amulet, ages 10-14), Nan Sparrow’s first memories are of the gentle, quiet man who adopted her as an abandoned infant and taught her his trade. The Sweep added love and imagination to a life that, for most 19th-century chimney climbers, was unrelievedly grim. But now he’s gone, his only legacy a lump of charcoal that Nan can’t bring herself to toss away. Maybe it’s good luck, and she needs all the luck she can get working for Wilkie Crudd, the most heartless master in London. 

The charcoal turns out to be more than luck when, in a moment of intense danger, it saves Nan from becoming a piece of charcoal herself. It seems to be alive. And like all live things, it grows—in this case, to a large, sooty creature she names Charlie.

Nan’s “monster” is childlike and affectionate, and once free of the vicious Master Crudd, Nan can make a home for both of them in an abandoned mansion. But this state of affairs can’t last, especially with Crudd still looking for her.

Basing the story on historical research and Jewish legends about the mythical creatures called “golems,” Jonathan Auxier builds a gripping plot. Nan and her friends, especially Toby the street peddler, find meaning in the bonds they forge: “That’s how it works, doesn’t it?” Toby reminds her. “We are saved by saving others.” Some bonds are tragically broken, but others go on, giving purpose and beauty to life. Though not explicitly spiritual, Charlie echoes some of Christ’s sacrificial character. Even the grimmest circumstances brim with hope. 

In The Season of Styx Malone by Kekla Magoon (Random House, ages 12-15), Caleb and his brother Bobby Gene belong to a nice ordinary family in Sutton, Ind., a nice ordinary town. That’s the problem: Caleb hates ordinary. To his dad, everything is fine. To loyal, easygoing Bobby Gene, everything is OK and they’re still kids after all. Nobody understands Caleb, until he and his brother literally stumble over Styx Malone. 

Styx, a foster kid, is anything but ordinary, with his long snaky limbs and dazzling smile and head full of plans and schemes. Styx’s plan for getting out of Sutton involves wheeling, dealing, and trading up—and some aspects of it may not be legal or ethical. But Caleb is on board, no matter the cost to family and relationships:

What’s the cost of being “extraordinary”? Caleb exhibits an ambition that is seldom explored in children’s literature: a restless desire to be more than everyone thinks. “How do you survive knowing there’s more of you than anyone will ever touch? That you’re bigger than your own skin?” His mom says, “Everybody is special in their own way,” but that’s just mom talk. What does it really mean?

A couple of our reviewers remarked on the “classic” feel of the story, harking back to Tom Sawyer. Humor balances the serious moments, and the strong family is a plus, especially as an antidote to bad behavior: One objection readers may have is Caleb’s occasional mild swearing, but he’s trying to be provocative.

As immortal souls created for glory, we’re all bigger than our own skin. The tension between everyday life and uncommon destiny haunts us, and makes this an extraordinary story.

Short List

Inkling

Kenneth Oppel 

Only the cat saw the wind blow across Mr. Rylance’s open sketchbook, just before a blob of ink rose off the page and leapt upon the drafting table. Meeting “Inkling” for the first time, Ethan Rylance suspects this unexplainable phenomenon may be the secret of his missing artistic talent, or the cure for his graphic-artist father’s depression. Inkling himself is a most unique character: excitable, naïve, charmingly impressionable (his efforts to imitate the style of every author he absorbs will make grown-up readers smile). But beyond its comedy-of-errors plot, the book has much to say about human creativity, integrity, and imagination. (Ages 10-14)

The Orphan Band of Springdale

Anne Nesbet

In the desperate days of the Great Depression, Augusta Neubronner has learned from her father that life is struggle. Father, a union organizer and suspected Communist, had to disappear suddenly while taking Gusta to stay with her grandmother in Springdale, Maine. But “struggle” is not just the way of the world; it’s the way of growth. And life is full of delights: music, friendship, small pleasures of creation. The vision nearsighted Gusta receives with her new glasses is beautifully portrayed; a metaphor for the “clear light of trouble” where we find our strength. Worth noting: An illegitimate birth is pivotal to the story, but handled in a moral way. (Ages 12-15)

Nowhere Boy

Katherine Marsh 

Max is unhappy about spending a year in Brussels while his father serves as a liaison officer for NATO. But when he discovers Ahmed, a Syrian refugee hiding in his basement, Max gains a sense of purpose in helping Ahmed any way he can. Some of that help involves lying to authorities (e.g., forged papers), and his schemes stretch credulity near the end. But their friendship is well done, and while sympathetic to Muslim immigrants the story does not soft-pedal terrorist incidents in Europe. Max is not religious, and Ahmed is, but the self-sacrifice Max displays is deeply rooted in the Christian heart of the West. (Ages 12-15)

Hope in the Holler

Lisa Lewis Tyre 

Wavie Conley never had much, but when her Mama passes away from cancer, Wavie realizes how much she’s losing—especially after her hitherto-unknown Aunt Samantha shows up and claims guardianship. It soon becomes clear that Aunt Samantha sees Wavie mostly as a welfare check and a source of unpaid labor. A court decision will make this unhappy situation legal, but Wavie finds allies who help her uncover a family secret that may provide a way out. Sparkling dialogue, an engrossing plot, and explicit Scriptural references (particularly Jeremiah 29:11) lead to a genuinely happy ending. (Ages 10-14)

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.