The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street by Karina Yan Glaser; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 295 pages ($16.99) Ages 7 to 10.
This wonderful debut novel brings to vivid life a lovable, big, biracial family and their vibrant Harlem neighborhood and is a stellar entry in the library of children's novels of book families, in the vein of Jeanne Birdsall's "Penderwicks" series. Five days before Christmas, the five Vanderbeeker kids (12-year-old twins Isa and Jessie, 9-year-old Oliver, six-year-old Hyacinth and four-year-old Laney) are desperately plotting how to persuade their crotchety recluse of a landlord not to force them to leave their beloved apartment in a Harlem brownstone and their loving community of neighbors and friends. The mystery is: Why did Mr. Biederman suddenly decide to refuse to renew their lease after six years? And what can kids do to change his mind? Bribe him with Christmas cookies? Leave an old Duke Ellington vinyl album at his door? Play him a violin solo? One after another, their schemes backfire.
This beautifully written book is funny, poignant, and sweet but not saccharine. The author offers wonderful portrayals of the happy mayhem of a household with five very different siblings and their hard-working parents - their mother a professional pastry chef, their dad, a computer repairman who serves as the brownstone building superintendent. The colorful characters and locales include Castleman's Bakery, the public library, a lop-eared bunny named Paganini that does tricks, an ancient chihuahua named Senor Paz, postman Mr. Jones, Isa's practice room in the basement, Jessie's water wall invention, beloved second-floor neighbor Miss Josie. Yan Glaser moved to New York City at 18 and has lived for seven years with her family in the Harlem neighborhood where her lovely novel is set.
In an interview provided by the publisher she said: "With housing prices and space constraints, families with many kids are more of a rarity in New York City. It was fun to dream up a scenario where a large, middle-income family could live here." More Vanderbeeker adventures are promised.
Far From the Tree by Robin Benway; HarperCollins, 375 pages ($17.99) Ages 13 and up.
Robin Benway, author of the acclaimed "Emmy & Oliver," examines what it means to be a family in this compelling novel of three siblings, given up for adoption, who find each other again. Grace, who was adopted at birth, is devastated after giving her own baby up for adoption and decides to seek out her birth mother, only to discover that she has a younger sister, who was also given up for adoption, and an older brother who has spent his entire life in a succession of foster homes. Sharp-tongued Maya has always felt like the odd one out in her family of red heads. She has a gift for driving people away when they get too close, and wonders what will happen to her when her quarreling parents finally get a divorce. Joaquin has finally found loving foster parents who want to adopt him but his scars from the past make it impossible for him to trust anyone. Benway has a sure touch in crafting believable characters struggling with deep hurt and finding that rare gift, a connection with others. No complaints that she ties everything up with a nice bow at the end.
The Wolf, the Duck & The Mouse by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen; Candlewick Press, $17.99.
A duck and a mouse are swallowed by a wolf and take up comfortable residence in his stomach, enjoying breakfast ("Where did you get jam?" "You'd be surprised what you find inside of a wolf."), companionship and an end of the fear that one day a wolf might swallow them up in this madcap twist on a fairy tale from gifted collaborators Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen (creators of "Triangle" and "Sam and Dave Dig a Hole," among others). The storytelling is first-rate. As the duck puts it: "I may have been swallowed. But I have no intention of being eaten." And Klassen's distinctive illustrations – the duck walking through a spooky forest, the wolf sprawled on the forest floor nursing his upset tummy, the duck and mouse at an improbably huge dining table inside the wolf's stomach – are marvelous.