The Next Great Paulie Fink by Ali Benjamin; Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 371 pages ($16.99) Ages 8 to 12.
Ali Benjamin follows up her extraordinary debut novel "The Truth About Jellyfish" – a National Book Award finalist – with the equally wonderful, but very different and entirely original "The Next Great Paulie Fink." It's a middle school story to top all middle school stories, a poignant coming-of-age tale set in a tiny rural school held in a decaying mansion, with a goat pasture for a soccer field.
When her mom decides to move from downstate New York to Mitchell, Vt., a town that has seen better days, Caitlyn Breen knows from experience she has to quickly figure out who the cool kids are. She knows that wearing the wrong thing, or appearing strange can make you an outcast, like Anna, the girl she and her friends picked on at her old school. But the Mitchell School has only 10 kids in the entire 7th grade, and they are all abuzz over the disappearance of Paulie Fink, the class troublemaker, whose exploits are the stuff of legend. At this strange new school, where her classmates don't seem to care what anyone thinks, each seventh grader is assigned to look after a kindergartner at lunch time (which seems to Caitlyn like unpaid babysitting). They also have to feed the goats (a perilous endeavor that involves distracting the grumpy billy goat), and all students are invited to ring the Good Day Bell at the end of the school day, something Caitlyn vows she will never do.
When Paulie fails to appear for seventh grade, the class decides to hold a series of reality shows to determine who will be the next Paulie Fink. Where "Jellyfish" offered a rich exploration of science, "Paulie Fink" explores philosophy and the wisdom of the ancient Greeks with thought-provoking lessons, including one on the allegory of the cave, that seem to have special resonance for the kids of Mitchell, Vermont, and especially for Caitlyn. Benjamin structures her novel as "the official record" of the search for the next great Paulie Fink, a clever way of offering different perspectives of what's going on, including interviews with several characters, emails, texts Caitlyn sends to her friends back home. Benjamin finds the perfect way to end her novel with a surprising plot development and a rowdy soccer game between Mitchell and the rich kids from archrival, Devlinshire.
Captain Rosalie by Timothée de Fombelle, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault, translated by Sam Gordon; Candlewick Press, 60 pages ($15.99)
This eloquent, heart-wrenching story, of a little girl whose father is away fighting at the front in The Great War, comes from French playwright Timothée de Fombelle, author of acclaimed "Toby Alone" and its sequel and other novels for children. It's a small book, with glossy pages, the kind that would normally hold a sweet fairy tale.
Five-and-a-half-year-old Rosalie is waging a battle of her own, a captain in her secret war. Her mother works in a factory and must leave Rosalie at the schoolhouse early. Only Edgar, an older boy known as a troublemaker, seems to notice Rosalie at all. Rosalie is strangely discontented as her mother reads aloud her father's letters from the front; on the day a blue envelope comes and her mother falls silent and weepy, Rosalie decides she must take radical action.
The author, in a note to readers, says: "This story is about every child's dogged, silent struggle to find out the truth. A struggle where their only weapons are words." Arsenault's stunning illustrations are a wonder of shades of grays and black, with splashes of vivid red for Rosalie's red hair as she perches at her window staring out at the black night or the flames leaping in the stove in the schoolhouse.
Riding a Donkey Backwards; Wise and Foolish Tales of Mulla Nasruddin; retold by Sean Taylor & the Khayaal Theatre; illustrated by Shirin Adl; Candlewick Press ($18.99)
Why sprinkle flour on a clothesline? Why choose a silver coin that's worth less than a gold one? Can a cow truly climb a pole? Would you like to know how a thief can turn into a donkey?
This charming collection of 21 classic tales introduces children to a much-loved trickster character from Muslim tales, the "wise fool" found in stories from cultures around the world. There's Nasruddin as a boy coming up with a clever reply to his teacher after falling asleep when he was supposed to be drawing a picture. Or Nasruddin following a robber who has stolen everything he could carry, climbing into bed at the robber's home and saying "My wife and family will be joining us in the morning. I thought we were moving to your house." "When You Are Dead" features Nasruddin, walking with friends past a funeral procession and pondering: Imagine it was your funeral. What would you want people to say about you? Nasruddin's response? "Look, he's moving!"
The vibrant, collage-style illustrations are by a British-Iranian illustrator who says the Nasruddin stories were an important part of her childhood.
Story topics: children's books