One Amazing Elephant by Linda Oatman High; HarperCollins, 257 pages ($16.99). Grades 3 to 7.
Twelve-year-old Lily Rose and circus elephant Queenie Grace alternate as narrators in this poignant novel of friendship, family and home, set in the Magic Mountain Campground in West Virginia and the “circus town” of Gibtown, Fla., a designated “residential show business zone” where it’s perfectly legal to keep an elephant in the yard (even if there’s a risk of said elephant smashing a window with her trunk to grab a bag of peanuts). Asthmatic Lily Rose comes from a circus family - the mother who abandoned her is a trapeze artist, her maternal grandfather is elephant trainer “Bill the Giant.” The author does a wonderful job sketching out the backstage realities and relationships of the down-and-out circus life right down to Alligator Boy Henry Jack, creepy Fire-Eating Charlie and Lily’s mother’s shifty boyfriend Mike. (“Inside the trailer it smells like smoke, and socks, and old people, plus something like French fries or a hamburger.”). While some of the plot twists are a stretch, animal lovers will enjoy the friendship that blooms between Lily and Queenie Grace. the best pachyderm protagonist since Sara Gruen’s “Water for Elephants.” This book, while rough around the edges, has some of the same charm exploring the possibilities of human-animal connection, as Katherine Applegate’s Newbery Medal-winning “The One and Only Ivan.”
The Secret Project by Jonah Winter and Jeanette Winter; Simon & Schuster, $17.99. Ages 4 to 8.
Mother-son team Jeanette and Jonah Winter offer a powerful book about the secret project that produced the atomic bomb, with an unusual and revelatory approach that deserves attention beyond the picture-book audience. There’s a sense of unease as Jonah Winter in simple text tells the story of brilliant scientists arriving in the desert of New Mexico to do important work they aren’t allowed to talk about. (“They are trying to figure out how to take the tiniest particle in the world, the atom, and cut it in half, making it even tinier.”) Jeanette Winter’s illustrations have a gorgeous folk-art quality, whether dark figures silhouetted in the windows of a building working at their desks at night, or the sharp contrast of serene desert landscape and Hopi Indians carving dolls from wood. The ending is perfect, devastating, no words required. A lengthy author’s note at the end fills in the details.