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Books in Brief: The Button War by Avi; Racing Manhattan by Terence Blacker

The Button War: A Tale of the Great War by Avi; Candlewick Press, 229 pages ($16.99). Ages 10 to 14.
The author of more than 60 books for young people including 2003 Newbery Medal-winner "Crispin: The Cross of Lead" has published, at age 80, possibly his finest work yet, in the compelling, brilliant "The Button War," which one reviewer called reminiscent of "Slaughterhouse-Five" and "Lord of the Flies." In August 1914, a pack of boys, led by 12-year-old Jurek and Patryk, while away the days in their Russian-occupied village in Poland building forts, hanging out at the village water pump, having fishing contests, or – at Jurek's instigation – playing pranks on their neighbors. Then Patryk finds a button in the forest and refuses to hand it over to an enraged Jurek, who declares he is the descendant of ancient Polish king Boleslaw the Brave.

War comes to the village, German soldiers take up residence in villagers' homes, and Jurek announces a new contest, daring the boys to steal military buttons, with the owner of the best button to be proclaimed Button King. Despite his misgivings, Patryk is determined to prevent Jurek from winning by finding the best button himself. The contest escalates in ever-more dangerous ways, from cutting buttons off uniforms on a laundry line to climbing into a bomb crater to cut buttons off the uniform of a dead soldier. Patryk finds himself stuck in ever more dangerous competition, helpless to call the whole thing off, unable to save his friends and taking actions that will have terrible consequences, as Jurek grows increasingly violent in his deadly obsession with finding the best button. In crisp, beautiful prose, narrated in Patryk's voice, Avi brings to life the small village, the quiet rhythms of daily life, the class differences (Patryk's father is a wheelwright, Jurek has no parents and lives with a sister who does laundry for Russian soldiers), the ominous arrival of war in the form of a German airplane which Patryk believes at first to be a giant bird. The insanity of the boys' button war, a war they are caught up in and eventually consumed by, mirrors the Great War itself. "The Button War" is a classic, a contender for this year's Newbery and National Book Award.

Racing Manhattan by Terence Blacker; Candlewick Press, 343 pages ($17.99). Ages 12 and up.
This entertaining tale of a misfit girl, and the misfit mare she turns into a champion, comes from a British author ("The Twyning" and other novels for young adults) who has ridden as an amateur jockey. Jay Barton, taken in by an uncle after her mother's death, has always felt second-best to her cousin Michaela but she has always found a kind of peace working with the ponies and horses at her Uncle Bill's farm. Uncle Bill is a schemer and a gambler and soon involves Jay in his underhanded schemes, until she leaves home to work at a racing stable in an attempt to get away from him. There she discovers Manhattan, a temperamental mare dismissed by everyone at the stable as hopeless. Blacker does a marvelous job sketching out this suspenseful tale of a teenage girl striking out on her own and finding surprising allies, among them a Saudi prince, in her bid to show the world what Manhattan can do.
Frog and Beaver by Simon James; Candlewick Press ($16.99)
A beaver sets out to build the biggest dam on the river, with disastrous consequences for frog and the other woodland creatures in this funny environmental fable from gifted British author-illustrator Simon James, creator of "Baby Brains," "Rex" and more.

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