The Warden’s Daughter by Jerry Spinelli; Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers; 339 pages, ($16.99) Ages 9 to 12.
This poignant novel of love, loss and sacrifice, set in 1959 in the small town of Two Mills outside Philadelphia, comes from the author of many acclaimed novels for this age group including Newbery Medal winner “Maniac Magee. “ Twelve-year-old Cammie O’Reilly lives with her dad in an apartment above the entrance to Hancock County Prison, an address that gives her a certain glamour with her classmates especially after a notorious child killer arrives at the prison. Cammie is an angry girl; her mother died saving her from being run over by a truck when Cammie was a baby, and Cammie is ever in search of a mother figure when she’s not riding her bicycle all over creation, getting herself in trouble, or enjoying the attention from the female inmates in the prison yard including a 300-pound shoplifter named Boo Boo. Another inmate, a sullen trustee named Eloda, works as a housekeeper for the warden and Cammie dreams Eloda could be the mother she never knew, as she tries to goad Eloda into revealing details about her criminal past while Eloda makes her breakfast or fixes her stub of a pigtail. Along with a compelling coming-of-age tale and fascinating setting of a small town in the shadow of a prison, Spinelli vividly evokes the era, with its music, ice cream parlors and the craze over “American Bandstand.” He’s a gifted writer: here he describes the Fourth of July fireworks display: “Without warning came a deep, concussive thump and a whistling into the night, a plasticky crinkle above the trees.” The poignant and surprising reveal at the end is followed by what seems like an unnecessary postscript in 2017 with a glimpse of Cammie as a grandmother visiting her old home.
Preaching to the Chickens: The story of young John Lewis by Jabari Asim; illustrated by E.B. Lewis; Nancy Paulsen Books, $17.99.
This lovely book offers a moving portrait of the childhood of civil rights icon John Lewis, inspired by Lewis’ account of growing up working on his family’s farm in southern Albama and yes, preaching to the chickens, from his memoir “Walking with the Wind.” Asim in simple, lyrical prose, describes the hard but satisfying work on the farm, the family life centered around church, John’s dream of becoming a preacher someday and his love for his chickens including a mishap when a hen named Big Belle fell into the well and got stuck and young John filled a basket with bread crumbs and lifted her to safety. The luminous watercolors by Caldecott Honor illustrator E.B. Lewis are simply lovely.