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“This book started with an image: a very formal butler standing on a stoop of a normal suburban house, on the first day of the oldest kid’s sixth-grade year, in the rain,” explained Gary D. Schmidt, author of Pay Attention, Carter Jones (Clarion Books, ages 10-12). “That whole image was there before anything else, and obviously, the question is: Why is he there?”
At the Jones household, there’s a lot more going on than the first day of school. The family is falling apart. Capt. Jackson Jones, aka Dad, is on deployment in Germany, and a recent tragedy makes his absence doubly stressful. Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick has arrived to bring word of the passing of Capt. Jones’ father, a grandfather the children never met, but who left them, as it were, a butler.
By Chapter 2, Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick is firmly bringing order to the house. Any fan of British children’s literature might be thinking of Mary Poppins (even though, as 12-year-old Carter and his sisters often remind their new mentor, “We’re in America”). But the butler is stolidly unmagical.
The butler prefers the title of “gentleman’s gentleman,” and true gentlemen can be found even in America. But they are made, not born, and Carter’s gentlemanly training begins with thoughtfulness toward his sisters and respect for his mom (all of which comes with the privilege of driving his late grandfather’s eggplant-colored Bentley). Capt. Jones has neglected these traits and abandoned his family to deal with a devastating loss in their own ways. The butler has another way, adapted to each family member.
For Carter, it’s the elegant game of cricket: The boy begins as a typically cheeky (at least on the surface) adolescent who doesn’t know what to do with the weightier matters of life. But Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick provides some grounding: “In the midst of great anxiety and great sadness, it takes an honorable man to nourish the goodness around him, small and fragile as it may seem.” Family, art, dance, and sports are all good things, but it takes effort to nourish them properly. Eighth grader Carson Krebs, who has also experienced loss, backs up the butler: “Cricket is serious. Pay attention.” Cricket is also incomprehensible to most Americans and will remain so to readers who don’t pay attention to the chapter headings and game sequences.
But that doesn’t matter because (of course) it’s a metaphor. Life is serious and requires attention to the rules, both explicit and implicit. But it’s also thrilling, fun, and totally worth the effort. Gary Schmidt (who while writing children’s fiction still loves engaging with students and literature at Calvin College) gently reminds young readers that a life lived well is well worth living.
by Lynne Jonell
Will’s mother, on a medical mission to some disaster-prone, Third World country, has run into serious trouble involving soldiers and guns. Dad has flown to the rescue while Will and his brother Jamie take an impromptu, and unwilling, vacation to relatives in the Scottish Highlands. Little does Will suspect a weird talent buried deep in his genetic heritage: the ability to open windows in time while on any spot of land significant to the family. Layers of ancestral history unfold, each with its own troubles and ethical dilemmas, but God remains: a rock of stability and hope in all stories. (Ages 9-13)
Super Jake & the King of Chaos
by Naomi Milliner
Ethan performs magic at children’s birthday parties and dreams of sharing a stage with his hero, Magnus the Magnificent. His Jewish family supports him enthusiastically: parents, grandparents, annoying little brother—and Jake. At 2 years old, Jake can’t walk, talk, sit up, or swallow. But he can smile; that’s how he shows his love for the family that loves him. Ethan always dreads the moment when he has to explain his brother to strangers, but life is good until a crisis makes him question everything he’s believed. Though realistic about the strains of caring for a special-needs child, the story is engaging, upbeat, and hopeful. (Ages 9-13)
by Jerry Craft
From Washington Heights to Riverdale Academy is a leap that Jordan Banks doesn’t necessarily want to take. A black kid attending a fancy school? Will he have anything in common with anybody? It turns out that people are people, regardless of color and background. Classmates do make assumptions about him, but he has his own assumptions to overcome. The author has some fun with racial stereotypes, but the story isn’t primarily about race. It’s about those difficult years of learning who you are and what you’re good at, figuring out what to keep and what to leave behind. And it’s a lot of fun. (Ages 9-13)
We’re Not From Here
by Geoff Rodkey
For the humans who planet-hopped after Earth collapsed, Mars isn’t as supportive of life as they hoped. The distant Planet Choom, originally settled by an insectlike species called the Zhuri, has offered refuge. But in the 20 years it takes for the Earthlings to get there, the Choomians have reconsidered: Humans are emotional and violent, and therefore too risky. Only after intense negotiation are Lan Persaud and his family allowed a provisional stay to prove their worth. More than a rollicking space adventure, the story touches on issues of fake news, racism, censorship, creativity, and more—often hilariously. (Ages 9-13)
A Wolf Called Wander, by Roseanne Parry, is the fictionalized account of the adventures of an actual wolf. Lindsay Lackey’s debut novel, All the Impossible Things, follows a troubled foster child from an “impossible” family situation to new hope, with hints of a guiding providence. The Bootlace Magician, Cassie Beasley’s follow-up to Circus Mirandus (WORLD’s 2016 Children’s Novel of the Year), explores profound spiritual themes in a magical setting.
—The next story in the Children’s Books of the Year section is about WORLD's nonfiction winner, Her Own Two Feet.