The Journey of Little Charlie by Christopher Paul Curtis; Scholastic, 233 pages ($16.99) Ages 9 to 13.
The latest marvelous novel of the African-American experience from acclaimed author Christopher Paul Curtis (winner of Newbery Honors for "The Watsons go to Birmingham - 1963" and the Newbery Medal for "Bud, Not Buddy") takes place just before the Civil War when the Fugitive Slave Act allowed slave catchers to travel anywhere in the country in pursuit of their prey. The novel is effectively told in heavy dialect, through the voice of Charlie Bobo, or "Little Charlie," the 6-foot 4-inch 12-year-old son of a white sharecropper in 1858 South Carolina. Charlie knows hard work, but when his father dies in a freak logging accident, life gets much worse for Charlie and his mother, especially when Cap'n Buck, the cruel overseer on the neighboring plantation, says Charlie's dad died owing him the unimaginable sum of $50. To repay the debt, Charlie agrees to accompany Buck north to Detroit to retrieve thousands of dollars in stolen goods. But to Charlie's surprise, the "stolen property" turns out to be former slaves who fled the Tanner plantation years before with their young son. Charlie has grown up in a world where dark-skinned people are considered not the equals of white people although his father was shocked at Buck's inhumane methods of punishment. But as Charlie observes the fugitive couple, their home in Detroit and lays eyes on their 12-year-old son, his conscience begins to plague him at the thought of returning them to South Carolina in chains. Curtis does a masterful job depicting the plight of the white sharecroppers in the South, a hard life that truly might make a lad like Charlie empathize with the plight of others. The colorfully horrible and odoriferous Cap'n Buck is a worthy villain. The Detroit sheriff's coaching Buck how to behave (get a haircut, take a bath, buy a suit) in preparation for crossing into Canada to retrieve his prey is particularly interesting and almost funny. Charlie's innocent delight at his first train ride offers a refreshing reminder that while he towers over most adults, he is really just a kid. The Buxton community Curtis wrote about in the Buxton Chronicles figures in the books' dramatic finale.
The Amazing Collection of Joey Cornell by Candace Fleming, illustrations by Gerard DuBois; Schwartz & Wade Books, $17.99. Ages 4 to 8.
The gifted Candace Fleming, author of such excellent nonfiction for young readers as "The Family Romanov" and "Ben Franklin's Almanac," combines her talents with acclaimed illustrator Gerard DuBois for this lovely picture book based on the childhood of a great American artist. It begins: "Joey Cornell collected - everything.... anything.... that sparked his imagination or delighted his eye. 'If I like it, I keep it,' Joey always said." The cover illustration shows young Joey, wearing the shorts and cap of a boy of the early 20th century, pulling a wagon loaded with all manner of interesting finds: a doll's head, spectacles, a clockface, a picture frame. The luminous illustrations and lyrical prose reveal Joey's delight in the beauty of things, whether it be a parrot feather, a ticket, a glass bottle, and his parents' loving support of their son's odd hobby, bringing him treasures for his collection - a soap bubble pipe, odd-shaped pebbles, old sheet music. After his father's death, Joey carefully arranges his collection in the family barn as a first art show to delight his grieving family. In the afterword, we learn that Cornell became famous as an artist for putting various objects in small boxes and that he did indeed hold his first art show in the family barn in Nyack in 1917 to cheer up his family after his father died. Among the displays was "a loaf of bread chained inside an iron safe."