Dave Eggers, author of acclaimed picture books "This Bridge Will Not Be Gray" and "Her Right Foot," makes an impressive middle-grade fiction debut with this terrific story of a town with a secret. Twelve-year-old Granite "Gran" Flowerpetal expects to be teased about his weird name as a new kid at school in the strange town of Carousel – once home to a thriving carousel factory. But at his new school, no one teases him, no one speaks to him, no one really notices him at all, except for one girl, Catalina Catalan, who always seems to be rushing off on some mysterious errand. Gran follows her, and sees her push a silver handle into the dirt and disappear underground. Gran joins her in a desperate effort to save the town from collapsing in face of a terrible threat from below. Along with the vivid description of the sad town of Carousel and the suspense of the heroic efforts to save it, Eggers offers plenty of humor, especially in descriptions of middle school. For example, in science class the teacher passes around a plastic box containing a "furry gray mass" – the scat of an Indonesian leopard: "As fascinating as lice and feces were to Gran, they were crowded out by thoughts of Catalina Catalan." The heated debate between the town's two competing factions (one wants money for schools and parks, the other money for Moose Attack Prevention) resonates with current arguments about a border wall. And in examining the true threat to the sad town of Carousel, Eggers performs a marvelous sleight of hand, producing a first-rate middle grade adventure that doubles as a political parable for our times.
Caleb Roehrig, author of critically acclaimed 2016 YA mystery "Last Seen Leaving," does not disappoint in this sophomore effort, a pulse-pounding thriller that never lets up until the final page. Sixteen-year-old Rufus Holt is at his best friend's drunken Fourth of July party when he gets a frantic call from his 15-year-old stepsister, April, from a remote cottage on an island in Lake Champlain. Rufus' former boyfriend, Sebastian, offers to drive him there and the two find April unconscious, a bloody butcher knife in her hand, next to the body of a murdered classmate, and enough hallucinogenic "white rabbit" pills strewn about "to stuff a beanbag chair." They should call the police, but April begs Rufus to try to first figure out "whodunit" instead. Rufus, who is hard up for money, can't say no. So in the course of one night, Rufus and Sebastian follow the bloody trail of lies and betrayal from one wealthy classmate to another. At the same time, they are gingerly negotiating the fallout over their breakup – and trying to figure out where they stand with each other. Roehrig offers a particularly colorful and unflattering portrait of the entitled offspring of the upper crust of Burlington, Vt., including Rufus' psychopathic stepbrother, Hayden. The plot twists are expertly executed, and the action-packed reveal of the finale comes as a surprise.
Square by Mac Barnett & Jon Klassen; Candlewick Press, $15.99.
Square and Circle are friends, and in this latest beguiling picture book about the two, Square attempts to make a Circle sculpture that will be as perfect as his friend is. Circle thinks Square is a genius. And she loves what he comes up with. Children will no doubt find the results hilarious. The droll illustrations by the Niagara Falls, Ont., native Klassen, in subtle shades of gray, brown and blue, endow these friends with personality and Barnett's simple text is perfect. Circle examines her friend's effort, seeing her reflection in a puddle formed in the circle of rubble left by Square's efforts: "It was beautiful. It was beguiling."