Dragon's Green: Worldquake Book One by Scarlett Thomas; Simon & Schuster, 369 pages ($17.99) Ages 9 to 12.
This marvelous fantasy - of a world where magic exists, where books are endangered and where children must do battle to save the world - takes place in a dystopian future "something like 1992," after a Worldquake has taken down the Internet and knocked out most cellphones. This thrilling, smart and beautifully written novel is the first book for children by an acclaimed British novelist and the first in a series (and includes a nod to J.K. Rowling). The action opens in the Tusitala School for the Gifted, Troubled and Strange, in the classroom of terrifying teacher Mrs. Breathag Hide (who once had the class construct from papier-mache the story from Greek mythology of Cronus eating his own babies). Eleven-year-old pudgy, bespectacled Maximilian Underwood has unwisely attempted to explain the absence of Euphemia "Effie" Sixten Bookend Truelove, whose grandfather is dying and has left her some curious tokens or "boons" including a ring, a crystal, a "wonde" or wand and some spectacles along with his rare book collection of "last editions." Another classmate, the bullying, seemingly thick-headed Wolf Reed, comes to the rescue after his uncle, creepy antiquarian bookseller Leonard Levar, shows up to cart away the books. Key to the plot is the unusual power that comes with being the "last reader" of a book. There are many marvelous touches in the story, including the "Dragon's Green" book of the title, which Effie enters only to find herself part of a princess competition, where daughters are sold off to princess school for the right to audition for the honor of being eaten by a dragon (some are kept "out of the sunlight in crates to make them more tender"). Thomas has crafted a vivid world, with evocative names, memorable characters, careful detail. Those coming into their magic "epiphanize." A door to the Otherworld is accessed through Mrs. Bottle's Bun Shop, a shop that is invisible to all but a few. This is a truly marvelous tale, and the reader will eagerly anticipate the next installment.