Dactyl Hill Squad by Daniel José Older; Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, 272 pages ($16.99) Ages 8 to 12.
The 1863 Draft Riots in New York City and attacks on African-Americans living there form the fascinating historical backdrop to this thrilling tale of underdog orphans battling pro-slavery forces as dinosaurs roam the streets of New York during the American Civil War.
Cuban-born 12-year-old Magdalys Roca and the other orphans from the Colored Orphan Asylum are headed on a field trip - in a wagon pulled by an ancient triceratops - to see a black theater company perform "The Tempest" when the Draft Riots break out and some of the orphans are kidnapped by evil magistrate Richard Riker. (The afterword notes that Richard Riker was a real-life magistrate in New York City who ran an organization that captured black New Yorkers and sent them into slavery.)
Magdalys and some other orphans find the orphanage has been burned to the ground and its elderly custodian has been lynched. After grabbing their own files from the orphanage, the group flees to Brooklyn where they find a safe haven in the Dactyl Hill neighborhood and work on a plan to rescue their friends. Meanwhile, Magdalys has discovered she seems to have the ability to communicate with dinosaurs and to get them to obey her; she also learns that her brother, a Union soldier, has been injured during the siege of Vicksburg.
Older is a marvelous writer: "On a normal summer night Manhattan sizzled with hollers, guffaws and arguments, a million tidbits of gossip that warbled and bassooned down airways and over rooptops, across bustling avenues and through dingy saloons." Against this vivid picture of 1860s New York, he offers a harrowing look at the second-class status of its black citizens, who must at any moment be able to produce papers proving they are free citizens and who "had only recently gained the right to dinoride... white people in Manhattan still bristled and stared when they saw someone with brown skin astride those massive scaly backs." The dinosaurs are brilliantly inserted into the historic backdrop. Most of the triceratops and raptors had been sent South to fight the Confederates. Lamplighters ride iguanodons; lumbering brachiosauruses carry commuters to work. A pachycephalosaur or "knuckleskull" is Riker's steed. A massive pteranodon and even a mosasaurus have pivotal parts in the action. "The streets would fill with stegosaurs lugging supplies and the duckbill riders in fancy dress clothes, heading off to important meetings, while microraptors scurried across the roads, carrying messages or making nuisances of themselves."
Equally vivid is the voice of brave, smart, defiant Magdalys, who risks everything to rescue her friends. This is the first of a series, and we look forward to her next adventure.
I Do Not Like Books Any More! by Daisy Hirst; Candlewick Press ($15.99)
Monster siblings Natalie and Alphonse (from "Alphonse, That Is Not OK to Do") love books and stories, and Natalie can't wait until she can read books for herself. But Natalie quickly discovers that learning to read is not so easy. "The letters and words looked like prickles or birds' feet." Also, the simple books her teacher, Miss Bimble, gave her weren't good stories. "The book was about a cat. The cat could sit." But Natalie does eventually triumph, dreaming up her own story and getting her parents' help in making her own book. Hirst's brightly colored, exuberant illustrations are perfect for this charming tale of the magic of stories.
The Untold History of the United States, Young Readers Edition, 1945-1962 by Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick, adapted by Eric S. Singer; Margaret McElderry Books, 288 pages ($19.99) Ages 10 and up.
Although this history is adapted for young readers, any baby boomers who as kids experienced "duck and cover" drills at school in the '50s and the Cold War paranoia then and afterward could benefit from this history of the U.S. With vividly described details (including the tragic fate of the residents of the Bikini atoll, relocated for atomic bomb tests, and the victims poisoned and maimed in Kazakhstan when the Soviet Union started testing its own bombs) and broad historical strokes, the authors examine the consequences of the U.S. decision to drop the atom bomb on Japan and the American enthusiasm for what became a nuclear arms race, the Korean War and the U.S.' extensive use of napalm there, the U.S. use of the CIA to overthrow Mossadegh, the democratically elected leader of Iran in 1953 after he nationalized the oil industry, and Arbenz in Guatemala after he defied the United Fruit company. The politics of hawkish young John F. Kennedy and the disastrous Bay of Pigs outing are explored in detail, as is the Cuban Missile Crisis which brought the world to the brink of annihilation.