Endling the Last: Book One by Katherine Applegate; HarperCollins, 400 pages ($17.99) Ages 8 to 12.
This brilliantly conceived, thrilling fantasy with its pulse-pounding suspense and sobering message comes from the Newbery Medal-winning author of "The One and Only Ivan"and the Animorphs series.
"Ivan" was told from told from the point of view of a gorilla; this is told from the point of view of a dairne named Byx, member of a species which has been hunted to near extinction for its warm and downy fur. The dog-like dairne can talk, walk on two legs, glide through the air and divine if someone is telling the truth. Byx is the runt of the litter in her dwindling pack, and above all else, she does not wish to be the Endling, the last of her species to survive. Separated from the pack, she finds herself alone in the world, in grave danger as human Murdano soldiers seem bent on slaughtering the dairne.
In her quest to find other living dairne in the world, Byx accumulates a motley band of unlikely companions: a girl masquerading as a boy, her horse, a wobbyk and a fearsome catlike creature, a felivet named Gambler. Applegate creates a wondrous world of invented creatures with sonorous names - mirabears, butterbats, cochets, natites, wobbyks, raptidons and terramants, inhabiting a vividly described landscape (including a "sentient island"). The cleverly constructed political backdrop features humans who are fond of warring amongst themselves and apparently bent on extinguishing other talking species. ("Never underestimate the human when it comes to duplicity and slaughter.")
The names of places and things are delightful. A ceremony to commemorate the extinction of a species is "a eumony." The market has "clay pots full of olives and peppers, preserved geet, strings of rockroot and garlic arrayed in rows... "roasted cochets on sticks, hats and insects trapped in amber." The thrilling action is secondary only to the vivid portraits of the very memorable characters in this stirring tale of friendship, courage and loyalty, and the environmental message - the importance of protecting endangered animals - rings through loud and clear. Readers will eagerly await the second installment. The publisher is partnered with the Animal Welfare Institute's efforts to preserve endangered species.
John Hendrix offers a marvelous graphic biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, interweaving neatly handwritten text with cartoon panels and other art to tell the fascinating story of the brave German pastor and theologian who was executed by the Nazis for his role in a plot to kill Hitler. Hendrix covers a lot of territory, offering excellent historical context about World War I and the events that led to the rise of Hitler, at the same time telling the personal story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was a fine musician, an excellent table tennis player and whose family considered him a little strange for his interest in God and theology. (One cartoon panel shows Dietrich arguing with his brother Klaus about the church.) Hendrix does a decent job explaining the evolution of Bonhoeffer's religious views, and his arrival at the belief that the church must be revolutionary and act for justice in the world. A particularly interesting chapter, "A German in Harlem," notes his stay at Union Theological Seminary in New York City in the 1930s and his life-changing friendship with a black classmate, Frank Fisher, who took him to Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and gave him an eye-opening experience of segregation and injustice in the U.S.
The Sinking of the Vasa: A Shipwreck of Titanic Proportions by Russell Fredman, illustrated by William Low; Godwin Books/Henry Holt, $18.99.
This interesting picture book offer a vivid look at a fascinating, little-known footnote in history - a Swedish king's vanity project of building a great warship, a ship so top-heavy it sank less than a mile into its maiden voyage in 1628. Russell Freedman, author of many award-winning nonfiction books for children, including Newbery Medal-winner "Lincoln: A Photobiography," is a marvelous writer and children will no doubt be intrigued by his account of the grand hopes for the marvelous ship, the disastrous sinking, the finger-pointing that followed, and the painstaking salvage effort three centuries later that saw the ship brought from the bottom of the sea and lovingly restored to its original glory. The Vasa is now in a museum in Stockholm specially built for the purpose. The eloquent Freedman, who died this year, notes the ship's bronze cannons "never fired a shot....In their silence lies a king's misguided dream of military might." William Low's lovingly detailed illustrations are marvelous and include a wonderful four-page illustration of the underwater scene as the massive ship was being brought to the surface.