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Books in Brief: What Is Given From the Heart by Patricia McKissack; Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy by Rey Terciero and Bre Indigo; Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus

PICTURE BOOK

What Is Given From the Heart by Patricia C. McKissack, illustrated by April Harrison; Schwartz & Wade Books ($17.99). Ages 4 to 8.

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This eloquent tale about the joy of giving, of generosity from the heart by the poorest of the poor, acts as a sort of benediction as the final picture book by gifted storyteller Patricia McKissack, who died in 2017.

The compelling narrative voice belongs to young James Otis, who describes a "rough few months," since his father died. ("Mama cried and cried, 'cause Daddy didn't have a suit to be buried in.") The "rough few months" are a string of disasters of Old Testament proportions, echoing the Plagues of Egypt: "We lost the farm... moved to a run-down shotgun house in the Bottoms... it rained frogs, everything flooded and Smitty, my dog, disappeared."

But when a family from their church loses everything in a fire and the pastor appeals for donations for a "love box" for the family, James and his mother find unique ways to give from the heart, with what very little they have. The beautiful, evocative illustrations, done with acrylics, collage, art pens and found objects, mark the impressive picture book debut of renowned folk artist April Harrison.

GRAPHIC NOVEL

Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy by Rey Terciero and Bre Indigo; Little, Brown ($24.99) Ages 12 and up.

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On the 150th anniversary of Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women," this marvelous, beautifully drawn graphic novel, updating the March girls for the 21st century, is the perfect way to celebrate Alcott's beloved classic.

In a brilliant stroke, this March family is a biracial and blended family. Mrs. March, who  is white, was a single mother of four-year-old Jo when she married widowed African-American Mr. March, father of Meg. As in Alcott's original, Mr. March is much beloved but absent for nearly the entire novel, this time serving with the military in the Middle East. (The girls' emails to their father are a big part of this book.)

This update is full of inspired touches. The Marches live in a New York City walkup, and Laurie and his grandfather are their wealthy neighbors, the Marquezes. Mrs. March, a nurse who works double shifts, drags the girls to the soup kitchen to serve the homeless on Christmas Day. Amy beats Laurie at Mortal Kombat (Jo cheering her on "Atta girl! Disembowel him!") after the March family enjoys the Christmas dinner Mr. Marquez ordered from Dean & DeLuca.  Perfect Meg misbehaves at a party in the Hamptons. Music-loving Beth takes up guitar, not piano, and her favorite music is not hymns but musicians like Nina Simone. When Beth falls ill, Jo shaves her head in solidarity and donates her hair to Locks of Love. Amy loves art, wants to be a YouTube star and tries to impress with big words (referring to a nonprofit as a "nonparfait"). 21st century Jo loves to read (her updated reading list includes Jeffrey Eugenides' "Middlesex") and wants to be a writer and her struggle with her gender identity is entirely consistent with Alcott's independent-minded Josephine March, with her disdain for girlish pursuits.

Author Rey Terciero, also known as Rex Ogle, "is a queer writer who has always been drawn to strong female protagonists." Bre Indigo, creator of ongoing webcomic series "Jamie," "tells stories of gentle boys, tough girls, and those in between, with a focus on tolerance and the many faces of love."  Alcott was a feminist and an abolitionist and one can imagine her smiling at the way the authors have invented a different future for the March girls than was possible, or even imaginable, in her day.

YOUNG ADULT

Two Can Keep a Secret...If One Is Dead by Karen M. McManus; Delacorte Press, 323 pages ($19.99) Ages 12 and up.

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This entertaining, well-crafted murder mystery by the author of "One of Us Is Lying" keeps the suspense going until the very last sentence.

High school senior Ellory has been shipped off to Echo Ridge, Vt., with her twin brother, Ezra, to live with their grandmother while their mom is in drug rehab. A true crime buff, Ellory is fascinated with the town, infamous for the unsolved murder five years before of the homecoming queen and the disappearance 17 years before of her mother's twin sister. Not only that, the town boasts Fright Farm, a horror theme park formerly known as Murderland, where she and Ezra get summer jobs.

McManus alternates the narration between Ellory and Malcolm, the nice but nerdy younger brother of the handsome jock who was the prime suspect in the slaying of  the homecoming queen. McManus does a fine job alternating Ellory's sleuthing with the angst and drama involved in being the new kid in town. While a couple plot points seem like a stretch, the novel hums along with terrific suspense right up to the dramatic finale.

 

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