The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor; Katherine Tegen Books/Harper Collins, 336 pages ($16.99) Ages 8 to 12.
Was there ever a more lovable, more valiant character than Mason Buttle? Leslie Connor offers an unforgettable, formidable hero in Mason, a big kid who can barely read or write and is relentlessly bullied by his classmates over his learning disabilities and his problem with profuse sweating. Mason lives with his grandmother and uncle in a "crumbledown" house by the family orchard, which used to provide something of a living for the family but has been left fallow, and partly sold off, after the tragic death of Mason's mother. For Mason, life has gotten even sadder and lonelier since his best friend Benny died in a fall from Mason's treehouse in the orchard 15 months before. Connor does a marvelous job telling the story from Mason's point of view, his puzzlement at the relentless questioning of a police officer investigating Benny's death and his bewilderment at the changed attitude of some old friends including Benny's dads. Mason finds relief dogsitting for his nasty classmate's dog Moonie and in the warm home he finds in the office of the school social worker who encourages him to tell his story to "The Dragon," a learning device that records his story as he tells it. At the heart of the story is the mystery of what really happened to Benny, a secret revealed in a most satisfying way only near the end. Connor's vivid cast of characters includes Mason's grandma and Uncle Drum, an odd lost soul named Shayleen who is addicted to the shopping network and somehow ended up living in the Buttles' house and Mason's new friend, white-haired, skinny Calvin Chumsky. The hideout Mason and Calvin create in an old root cellar, drawing cave paintings like the ones at Lascaux, is a particularly wonderful touch.
Brave Jane Austen: Reader, Writer, Author, Rebel by Lisa Pliscou, illustrated by Jen Corace; Christy Ottaviano Books/ Henry Holt ($17.99)
What a joy that gifted writer Lisa Pliscou, author of much praised adult novel "Higher Education," has decided to tell the story of Jane Austen's life in a picture book for children. A pedestrian talent simply would not do. In lovely, lyrical, perfect prose, Pliscou paints a vivid picture of the busy Austen household of six boys and two girls, "a big old house with low crooked rafters and a cellar that flooded," Rev. Austen's study with its many books, a globe and even a microscope, the family gathered in the parlor, spellbound as he read aloud. Jane's awakening to girls' second-class status is vividly depicted as well, the dawning realization, that she would not have a life like her brothers, of school, adventures, someday a profession. "Girls learned to sew and mend, to sit up straight and be polite; they were to be good." "In Jane's world, getting married was the only thing a girl could hope for when she grew up. A girl who didn't marry was odd. A failure. Maybe both." Formal schooling was spotty - although it made her sharply aware of the different prospects facing the Austen sisters and their more affluent classmates - and ended when she was 10 years old. Then Jane, a voracious reader, began to write for the first time, of girls who were not "sweet and obedient" but "greedy and selfish and vain" and of young men, who were not "noble and wise" but "silly and foolish." Her father and brothers supported her efforts, and Pliscou writes that when "Pride and Prejudice" was published, Jane wrote to her sister: "I have got my own darling child from London." Pliscou brilliantly, quickly sketches Austen adult life – her romance with one young man and her rejection of a proposal from another and her success as an author, against a context of how shocking it was for a woman to write books. Austen died at only 41, just months before the publication of "Northanger Abbey" and "Persuasion."
At the end, Pliscou includes a note about her research, additional quotes from Austen (among them, in a letter to sister Cassandra, she wrote: "I will not say that your Mulberry trees are dead, but I am afraid they're not alive"), quotes from authors who admired Austen (Faye Weldon: "She is not a gentle writer"), information about the Jane Austen Centre in Bath and Jane Austen's House Museum in Alton. Jen Corace's delicately colored illustrations, meticulous at representing the period, are perfect and include a page of silhouettes. This is a treat for adult Austen fans, and a wonderful introduction to Jane Austen for young readers.