The Lost Girl by Anne Ursu, Drawings by Erin McGuire; Walden Pond Press, 356 pages ($16.99) Ages 8 to 12.
There is real magic in this sparkling, perfect gem of novel by the author of "Breadcrumbs" and "The Real Boy" (which was long-listed for the National Book Award). There's a very spooky villain with a talent for magic; there is magic in the observant crows and wily cat who play a major part in the action. But the real magic is in the author's unerring sense for what it's like to be a sister, what it's like to be a twin, what it's like to be a child and to feel lost in a world where adults often don't listen, don't understand or don't take children's worries seriously. It's about the pain of growing up and growing apart, but also about the liberation of breaking out of old patterns, discovering the power of sisterhood that can be found beyond your own tiny family circle. And it's about battling the monsters and the very real terrors of the world.
Identical twins Iris and Lark Maguire have always been in the same class – until fifth grade when they are assigned different teachers and their parents refuse their desperate pleas to rectify the situation. Lark is the artistic, perceptive one, Iris the practical, grounded one. The sisters have their own secret language of taps to communicate. They protect each other. So being separated for the first time is unbearably traumatic. Sensitive Lark is humiliated on the first day when her new teacher calls her "Octopus Girl" when she is actually wearing a squid T-shirt. She vomits in class when the same teacher makes the children dissect owl pellets, made of the tiny bones of dead prey. Only Iris understands why she was so upset: "Because most people look at a bone and see a bone. You see the whole story." Iris is also suffering, unable to relate to her "pod mates" in class or the girls in her library after-school program, "Camp Awesome." (There's plenty of humor in Ursu's kid-friendly narrative: "Camp Awesome had continued to be an intense experience in making Iris feel less than awesome.")
The use of crows in the story is inspired: Lark feeds the crows and they in turn leave her gifts, shiny objects, like a silver washer, a screw, a tab from a pop can, until Lark has assembled a whole crow collection. Reason enough for crows to take a vital interest in her well-being. Lark works out her intense feelings through the odd scenes she creates in her dollhouse, Iris suffers from vivid nightmares that began when Lark was hospitalized for meningitis. ( "Sometimes the world is monstrous. Sometimes for whatever reason, an infection sips under your skin and takes hold.") And of course the girls are intrigued by the Treasure Hunters shop with its weird owner and its mysterious signs: "We are here" or "Alice, where are you?"
Ursu offers a vivid setting in her home of Minneapolis, and she weaves the city's cultural attractions into the story: the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden with its oddity "Spoonbridge and Cherry" by Claes Oldenburg, the Bell Museum and Planetarium in Saint Paul, the Minnesota Zoo which was home to two beluga whales although their names were Big Mouth and Little Girl.
We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia; Katherine Tegen Books, 364 pages ($17.99) Ages 14 and up.
Tehlor Kay Mejia makes an impressive debut in this thrilling tale of political intrigue, the first of two books set in a fantasy world whose stark divide between rich and poor offers echoes of contemporary realities.
Daniela Vargas is the top student at the Medio School for Girls, which grooms girls to become the wives of the ruling class, two wives per man (a primera and a segunda): one to run the household and one to raise the children. Daniela is to marry the son of the powerful Garcia family, when she is contacted by a resistance group and blackmailed into becoming a spy. Complicating matters, the segunda in the Garcia household is a classmate she isn't sure she can trust. The author offers terrific suspense, compelling Latina heroines, a sizzling, forbidden romance and an interesting political backdrop of a nation with an entire mythology and founding narrative that conveniently supports the status quo.
Hedy Lamarr's Double Life, Hollywood Legend and Brilliant Inventor by Laurie Wallmark, illustrated by Katy Wu: Sterling Books, 48 pages ($16.95).
This picture book tells the fascinating story of Austrian-born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, better known by screen name Hedy Lamarr, and her "double life" as an inventor. Her most significant discovery was her role, with composer George Antheil, in developing a technology called frequency hopping, that helped prevent jamming of torpedo guidance systems during World War II. Wu's vibrant illustrations evoke 1930s Hollywood although Lamarr would lament: "People seem to think because I have a pretty face I'm stupid... I have to work twice as hard as anyone else to convince people I have something resembling a brain." The story fits in with the current push to interest girls in STEM careers; it may also inspire children to look up Lamarr's classic movies.