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Books in Brief: Damsel by Elana K. Arnold; Attucks! Oscar Robertson and the Basketball Team That Awakened a City by Phillip Hoose; The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson


Damsel by Elana K. Arnold; Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins Children's Books, 309 pages ($17.99) Ages 13 and up.


Emory, the handsome prince of the Kingdom of Harding, is only following his destiny and doing as his father and grandfather have done before him when he slays the dragon, rescues the damsel and delivers her home to be his bride. From these traditional fairy tale elements, National Book Award finalist Elana Arnold (for "What Girls Are Made Of") has woven an unforgettable, fiercely feminist tale.

The rescued damsel – nameless, red-haired and naked, with no memory of her life before Emory appeared – takes the name Ama, and the lynx kitten she acquires on the homeward journey is her only solace against the loneliness she feels amid the strange surroundings of the castle. Arnold does a marvelous job with her vividly imagined portrayal of just how strange this world appears to Ama, as she struggles with Emory's sudden cruelty and her dawning comprehension of what her life will be as his queen. There are so many wonderful touches – Ama's first encounter with the lynx and a sense of something like memory as she stares into the creature's eyes ("it was right there– in the back of her brain, in the shine of the mother cat's eyes – a recollection, a calling back, a cognizance."). Then there is the castle glassblower and his miraculous creations including the glass eyes cemented into the castle wall that are said to bring luck (the penalty for stealing one? "An eye for an eye"). There is the queen mother  in a chamber with a great fireplace, a huge collection of cats and her warning that Ama's sole purpose is to serve as a vessel to give the king a son. There is Ama's strange need to be in heated rooms, near a roaring blaze, her struggle to protect her lynx kitten and her fear that Emory will kill it, and her desperate quest to discover her past and forge her own destiny.


Attucks! Oscar Robertson and the Basketball Team That Awakened a City by Phillip Hoose; Farrar Straus Giroux, 179 pages ($19.99) Ages 10 and up.


Phillip Hoose, a native of Indiana and author of National Book Award winner "Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice" and many other acclaimed works of nonfiction for young people, tells the thrilling true story of the all-black championship basketball team of Crispus Attucks High School that broke the color barrier in high school athletic competition in segregated Indianapolis of the 1950s.

He begins the book with a personal note, on his family's move to neighboring Speedway, Indiana, in 1956, when the Crispus Attucks Tigers were already a legend for winning the state tournament the year before; their star, Oscar Robertson, was said to be the greatest basketball player in Indiana history. Thirty years later Hoose interviewed Robertson for a piece on basketball-crazy Indiana for Sports Illustrated, and learned from Robertson that Attucks had actually been founded by the Klu Klux Klan as a way to segregate all the black students of Indianapolis at one school. Robertson noted the irony, that the basketball team's success eventually would lead to the integration of Indianapolis high schools, thanks to coaches who wanted to win and wanted to recruit black athletes.

Hoose meticulously researched his book and offers thrilling play-by-play of basketball games, including the bad calls the team came to expect from hostile referees. He offers interesting portraits of coach Ray Crowe and the championship players along with a fascinating look at the high school and its faculty of gifted teachers, many of whom had doctorates and could have taught at the college level. The players who had moved to Indianapolis from the South were shocked at the segregated and substandard housing blacks were forced to live in and shocked to find the same Jim Crow segregation at restaurants and businesses they thought they had left behind.  This compelling book is liberally illustrated with photos and news clippings and an afterword describes the later lives of the players from the championship team.


The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson; illustrated by Rafael López; Nancy Paulsen Books ($18.99)


This lovely book, with expressive illustrations by Rafael López, celebrates the bravery of children who feel like outsiders but somehow summon the courage to take those first steps to break down barriers. It's based on a poem from Jacqueline Woodson's memoir "Brown Girl Dreaming," which won the National Book Award. It begins: "There will be times when you walk into a room and no one there is quite like you. Maybe it will be your skin, your clothes, or the curl of your hair. There will be times when no one understands the way words curl from your mouth, the beautiful language of the country you left behind." 

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