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Books in Brief: Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson; The Vanishing Stair by Maureen Johnson


Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson; Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin Young Readers Group, 176 pages ($17.99) Ages 8 to 12.


Jacqueline Woodson, National Book Award winner for "Brown Girl Dreaming," explores big social issues in contemporary America, through the experience of a group of sixth graders who are grappling with the realities of racism, threats of deportation, incarceration.

Six sixth graders with learning difficulties are placed together in an ARTT (a room to talk) in their Brooklyn school on Friday afternoons as an experiment under the kind and wise supervision of teacher Ms. Laverne. There's Esteban, whose father has been detained by immigration.  There's Ashton, the only white student. There's red-haired Haley, who lives with her uncle and doesn't want to tell her new friends that her mother is dead and that her father has been in prison for eight years. Haley's uncle gives her recorder, and slowly the children's stories emerge. Esteban's father, a native of the Dominican Republic, is a talented baseball player and once dreamed of being a poet but was working in a factory in Queens sealing video games in plastic when he was taken into custody. Amari shares a story of the talk his father had with him in fifth grade, warning him that he could no longer run around playing toy guns, not even water pistols on a hot day, because of the danger faced by young black men from the police.

The title of this remarkable novel for middle-grade readers comes from a classroom lesson, as their teacher invites them: "If the worst thing in the world happened, would I help protect someone else? Would I let myself be a harbor for someone who needs it? Then she said, 'I want each of you to say to the other: I will harbor you.'"


The Vanishing Stair: A Truly Devious Novel by Maureen Johnson; Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins, 384 pages ($17.99) Ages 14 and up. (Jan. 22 publication)


In this second installment of her marvelous Truly Devious series, Maureen Johnson offers thrilling suspense, sly wit, a memorable cast of characters and more pieces of her deliciously intricate puzzle, shifting between a 1936 unsolved kidnapping and triple murder at the elite Ellingham Academy and present-day Vermont where that cold case crime continues to reverberate in disturbing ways.

Budding detective Stevie Bell has been obsessed for years with the 1936 crime known as the Truly Devious case, named for an enigmatic ransom note using pasted letters cut from magazines and signed "Truly Devious." Her obsession with the case secured her admission to the exclusive school in Vermont  where she made some breakthroughs in the investigation, fell inappropriately in love with David, another student,  and was ordered home by her parents after a classmate was found dead and another disappeared.  (The first book, "Truly Devious," is now available in paperback.)

Stevie is miserable back home in Pittsburgh, so when Trump-style populist politician Sen. Edward King – David's father – offers her the chance to return to Ellingham because her presence seems to be good for his son, she returns to Vermont, to find upgraded security and cameras everywhere. Johnson offers a realistic picture of Stevie's struggle with anxiety disorder as she deals with the friction of constant social contact with her peers in a dorm setting, her guilt over her classmate's disappearance and her acute discomfort at not telling David about his father's role in her return. A dream internship – helping eccentric, alcoholic Dr. Fenton with research for a book on the Truly Devious case – opens new lines of inquiry in her investigation. Is Professor Fenton correct that this case is all about the money, that a secret codicil in Ellingham's will offers millions to anyone who discovers what happened to his daughter Alice? There is a mysterious riddle, a hidden tunnel, a vital clue left in a Sherlock Holmes volume, another death, new details about some miscreant students and shocking new information about Arthur Ellingham, along with drama and discord in Stevie's relationship with David, as Johnson leaves us eagerly awaiting the next installment. Here's just a taste of Johnson's writing, as Edward King comes to Stevie's home in Pittsburgh: "The devil is not supposed to be in living rooms in Pittsburgh in the autumn twilight, sitting on the green sofa from Martin's Big Discount Furniture, in a room magnetically pointed at the television.")



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