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Books in Brief: The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl by Stacy McAnulty; Irving Berlin, the Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing by Nancy Churnin

The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl by Stacy McAnulty; Random House, 304 pages ($16.99) Ages 8 to 12.
This marvelous debut novel by a former mechanical engineer stars 12-year-old Lucy Callahan, a math genius whose idea of fun is reading old engineering textbooks and chatting in online math forums. She owes both her gift at math – and her obsessive compulsive disorder – to a lightning strike at age 8.

Lucy has been happily homeschooled for four years, earned her GED and aced her SATs, when her grandmother decides she must try middle school: "Give it 1 year...Make 1 friend. Do 1 thing outside of these walls. Read 1 book not written by an economist or a mathematician." So Lucy enters seventh grade, determined to hide her math skills to fit in better with her classmates who make fun of her obsessive routines and her stockpile of Clorox wipes, nicknaming her "The Cleaning Lady." But fooling her savvy math teacher proves not to be so easy.

Lucy is not really sure how to make friends but a chatty, outgoing 12-year-old activist named Windy befriends her almost immediately and the girls team up with a classmate named Levi for a group service project at a no-kill pet shelter that will use Lucy's math skills – and introduce a rescue dog named Cutie Pi that wins Lucy's heart, despite her fear of dog germs.

This humorous and heartfelt novel is a celebration of friendship and a sensitive look at what it's like for an adolescent to live with obsessive compulsive disorder. It's not only full of realistic middle school situations and interesting math applications, the hero is a math teacher. The afterword includes more math, a section on "For the Love of Pi" and one on the Fibonacci sequence.

Irving Berlin, the Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing by Nancy Churnin; illustrated by James Rey Sanchez; Creston Books, $17.99. Ages 7 to 12.
Nancy Churnin, the theater critic for the Dallas Morning News, offers a fascinating and accessible picture book biography of the great songwriter, in a lovely narrative that is alive with music from the very beginning. Five-year-old Irving glimpses the Statue of Liberty as he and his family, fleeing the pogroms of Russia, arrive in New York on a ship full of immigrants: "A melody rose and flew to her like Noah's dove in search of safe land: Shema Yisroel - Hear, O Israel."  On the streets of New York "the melodies in his head mixed with the crack of stickball games, the wail of the ragmen, and the creak of cartwheels on the cobblestones." The story of the unlikely beginnings of this self-taught songwriter is a fascinating one: he sang on street corners, got a job as a singing waiter, enlisted the restaurant pianist to help him write "Marie from Sunny Italy" which sold for 37 cents.

Irving Berlin lived to be 101, yet Churnin paints in vivid strokes what feels like a full accounting of his life, particularly his inspiration for "God Bless America," the radio hit sung by Kate Smith that inspired the U.S. on the eve of the dark days of World War II. The book notes that Berlin, who donated all proceeds from the song to Scout organizations, wrote it as "a thank you to the country that opened its arms to countless people from all over the world, including a homeless boy who came to America with nothing but music in his heart." The vivid, distinctive illustrations are by a California artist and reflect his "love for art [that] came from countless hours of reading comics, playing video games, and '90s Saturday morning cartoons."

After the Shot Drops by Randy Ribay; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 325 pages ($17.99). Ages 14 and up.

This excellent novel by the author of "An Infinite Number of Parallel Universes" offers pulse-pounding suspense, plenty of basketball action, memorable characters and an insightful look at what life is like for teens growing up in an atmosphere of gun violence, poverty and homelessness. When Bunny, a star Whitman High basketball player accepts a scholarship to St. Sebastian's, a private school in the suburbs, he feels as though he has betrayed his best friend and teammate, Nasir. Bunny must adjust to surviving in the alien environment of a wealthy, white school; Nasir, hurt that Bunny is dating his longtime crush, starts spending more time with his troubled cousin Wallace, who is about to be evicted with his grandmother from their apartment and starts betting on sports. Told from the alternating perspectives of Bunny and Nasir, this poignant novel will stay with you.

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