Beyond the Great Mountains: A Visual Poem About China by Ed Young (Chronicle Books, $17.95). All Ages. A celebrated illustrator offers a stunning, unusual tribute to his native land. This gorgeous book opens vertically, with tiered pages, each page holding one line of a poem and a beautiful paper-collage illustration highlighting different Chinese characters.
Gilda Joyce, Psychic Investigator by Jennifer Allison (Sleuth/Dutton, $10.99, 321 pages). This utterly charming first novel for readers 10 and up blends comedy and pathos, treating such serious subjects as death, divorce, suicide and grief seriously but without getting bogged down in gloom. Since her father died of cancer two years ago, Gilda Joyce has been determined to connect with spirits from the other side. A great opportunity for psychic investigation arises when she wangles an invitation to spend the summer after 8th grade at the San Francisco home of strange relatives, a home where a woman once jumped to her death from a tower room. As Gilda investigates, she strikes up a relationship with her morose cousin Julia and the two help each other heal their various psychic wounds. Gilda Joyce is a most charming heroine, and this book about her "first case" seems to promise sequels. Hurrah!
Totally Joe by James Howe (Atheneum, $15.95). Ages 10 and up. 189 pages. The author of the popular Bunnicula books offers a humorous and heartwarming story of a gay 7th grader named Joe Bunch and his battle to be himself amidst the name-calling and homophobia of middle school. Structured as an "alphabiography," or a teacher-assigned story of his life from A to Z, Joe finds the courage to be himself, thanks to a circle of good friends, the support of a loving family (including his jock older brother) and an irrepressible conviction of his own self-worth.
A Pioneer ABC by Mary Alice Downie (illustrated by Mary Jane Gerber, Tundra, $15.95) is a Canadian take on the American Revolution, with colorful tidbits about the homesteading experience of English loyalists, who fled to Canada. Gerber's lovely illustrations include detailed borders.
The Water Mirror: Dark Reflections Book One by Kai Meyer (translated from the German by Elizabeth D. Crawford), (Margaret K. McElderry Books, $15.95). 250 pages. Ages 12 and up. This elaborate fantasy, set in a mythical medieval Venice, of mermaid-filled canals, patrolled by guards on stone lions and under siege from an Egyptian empire of mummy warriors and flying sunbarks, was nominated for the German book prize. Two young apprentices (14-year-old orphan Merle, apprenticed to a maker of mirrors, and Serafin, apprenticed to a weaver) overhear a plot against the mysterious Flowing Queen, who protects the city and they must try to save her and the city. Meyer creates a wonderfully atmospheric tale, a Venice of chilly menace, with its shark-jawed mermaids, dark canals and magic mirrors. But she is not a creator of memorable or appealing characters. This is a bit reminiscent of Philip Pullman's "The Amber Spyglass" but is less compelling.
-- Jean Westmoore