Wundersmith, the Calling of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend; Little, Brown, 390 pages ($17.99) Ages 8 to 12.
Jessica Townsend lives up to the promise of her marvelous debut in this second book set in the brilliantly imagined fantasy world of Nevermoor, a magical, fluid, ever-changing cityscape with transport by umbrellas hooked on an overhead Brolly Rail, with Tricksey Alleys that lead to who knows where, the Deucalion Hotel with its iridescent black chandelier shaped like a bird, and its motley crew of inhabitants including Frank, the vampire dwarf, and the Magnificat Fenestra.
Morrigan Crow, now 12, and her best friend, Hawthorne Swift, have joined the ranks of the elite Wundrous Society and are now attending school at Wunsoc to learn to use their "knacks," or special talents. Morrigan, the outsider with a secret in the first book, is forbidden to tell anyone outside a small circle that she is a powerful Wundersmith and finds herself on the outside again, barred from the interesting classes her friends are taking, and permitted one class only, "A History of Heinous Wundrous Acts," taught by hostile, tortoise-like Professor Onstald, about the evils done by Wundersmiths. An encounter with bullies and a series of threatening notes add to her sense of isolation, and when Wundrous Society members start to disappear, suspicion falls on her. Even her patron, kindly, red-haired Jupiter North and the support of her friends at the Deucalion are little comfort as Morrigan struggles to understand the power she has been given in a world that tells her so often her power is evil that she fears it must be true.
Townsend offers thrilling suspense and a real sense of menace with the villainous Ezra Squall, the Hunt of Smoke and Shadow, the Bonesmen, a terrifying confrontation in a museum of giant snow globes containing grotesquely realistic sculptures. Her imagination runs wild in the most delightful way, whether it's the Angel Israfel performing in an old music hall to an audience of junkies hooked on the happiness his music brings, a building made of water, a hidden adventure park open only to certain visitors, an elaborate three-dimensional Living Map of Nevermoor in miniature with tiny figures moving in real time, a Ghastly Market with all manner of sinister wares – including organs and teeth ("molars, canines, wisdoms, tusks, use 'em for hexes, use 'em for jewellery... get yer teeth here!") – for sale.
Like J.K. Rowling, Townsend has a wonderful talent for evocative names. There's a magical train reminiscent of the one in Harry Potter and, as in Rowling's Potterverse, wonderful candy; on Sweet Street in the Nevermoor bazaar, you might find "a wall of fairy floss" (cotton candy) or "thick straps of chewy caramel hand-stretched and sold by the metre." Another colorful description of the bazaar: "Other stalls offered stews, flatbreads, hot chips, fried dumplings and crabs boiled in barrels... and, Morrigan noticed with disgust, buttery sauteed snails, deep-fried pig intestines, crunchy fried grasshoppers, and rats roasted on skewers like strange, fleshy popsicles."
Morrigan is a marvelous heroine – smart, loyal, brave, conflicted, struggling to do the right thing in a world where it's not always clear what the right thing might be. Readers will savor this latest adventure and look forward to the next one.
All-of-a-Kind-Family Hanukkah by Emily Jenkins & Paul O. Zelinsky; Schwartz & Wade Books ($17.99)
The beloved characters from Sydney Taylor's 1950s chapter books return in this utterly charming picture book by acclaimed author Emily Jenkins ("Toys Go Out" and more) and Caldecott Medal-winning illustrator Paul O. Zelinsky ("Rapunzel," "Hansel and Gretel").
It's the first night of Hanukkah, in the year 1912, on New York's bustling Lower East Side. Five sisters (all girls, "all of a kind") are preparing a special dinner: potato latkes with applesauce. Four-year-old Gertie wants to help, but her mother vetoes one job after another (the potato peeler is too sharp, the grater is even sharper, the bubbling schmaltz is very hot)) until Gertie stomps her feet and is exiled to the bedroom, only to end up with the very most important job of all: lighting the Hanukkah candle.
Jenkins' lovely, perfect prose ("The latkes taste of history and freedom, of love and crispy potato.") swiftly sketches an indelible portrait of a loving family; Zelinsky's buoyant illustrations with their bold outlines are perfect. A charming book.