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Books in Brief: All the Greys on Greene Street, With the Fire On High

CHILDREN'S

All the Greys on Greene Street by Laura Tucker; illustrations by Kelly Murphy; Viking, 307 pages ($17.99) Ages 10 and up.

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The "Greys" of the title refer not to a family but to the color, in this extraordinary debut novel set against the gritty backdrop of New York City in the 1980s. Twelve-year-old Olympia is an artist, always sketching in her notebook with her Blackwing pencils as she and her best friends Alex and Richard roam the streets of New York. Her mother crafts found objects into intricate sculptures in a corner of the family's loft; Olympia's father and his business partner Apollo restore old paintings and other art work in a loft upstairs.

But her father disappears, leaving Olympia a mysterious note with orders to destroy the note and tell no one about it;  her mother takes to her bed – and stays there.  Threatening phone calls seem to have something to do with her father's disappearance; a forgery expert pays a house call. Meanwhile, Olympia survives on apples and peanuts and the occasional dinner out with Apollo, as her mother sinks further and further into depression. Olympia tries to carry on – with her best friends and their parents and at school – as if everything were normal. But then her friends discover the truth and set in motion events that are out of Olympia's control.

There's a delicious mystery at the heart of the story, but more than that, this is a story of family, of secrets, of the silent suffering and the amazing resilience of children. It takes place against the interesting backdrop of growing up in a big city, of the three friends on their own, exploring every nook and cranny of the parks and streets, Alex testing his climbing and stunt techniques on walls and fire escapes. A love of art, of painting is woven into the very fabric of the narrative, of art as a way of really seeing, with careful details of the artist's craft and tools and vivid descriptions of painting and pigments (the shade of green in wallpaper that may have been fatal to Napoleon, a shade of Egyptian brown that came from mixing fragments of mummies). For her school project about ancient Egypt, Olympia crafts a tiny room, painted entirely in white, of items she would need in the afterlife in the Field of Reeds, "an afterlife just like my real life, but without anything to worry about." Tucker is a wonderful writer, and Olympia is a wonderful narrative voice: "The inside of Linda's station wagon is all black leather. It's like Darth Vader's bathroom in there." Olympia's talent for sketching is beautifully represented through Kelly Murphy's occasional illustrations.

YOUNG ADULT

With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo; 388 pages, HarperTeen ($17.99) Ages 13 and up.

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Elizabeth Acevedo follows up her National Book Award-winning "The Poet X," written in verse, with this marvelous novel, written in prose, of Emoni Santiago, whose life changed forever when she got pregnant her freshman year of high school.

Now a senior, Emoni and her two-year-old daughter Emma live with the abuela who raised her in a tough Philadelphia neighborhood called the Badlands.  (She picked the name Emma because: "I wanted to give Babygirl a nice name. The kind of name that doesn't tell you too much before you meet her, the way mine does. Because nobody ever met a white girl named Emoni.")

Since childhood, Emoni has shown a rare talent in the kitchen, for creative use of spices, herbs and flavor combinations that elevate her dishes to another realm.  Her classmates are applying to college; she is applying too but her dream is to work as a chef after she graduates. But that's a dream that seems impossible when she can barely hold it together, caring for her daughter, doing her homework and working at a burger joint after school to supplement her grandmother's disability checks. Her charter high school in Philadelphia is offering a new elective: a course in culinary arts, taught by a chef and featuring a trip to Spain. It seems a dream come true, but out of reach for Emoni, who can't imagine scrounging up the money to go.

The author offers a marvelous character in Emoni, a girl with a big talent, big dreams and adult responsibilities. Acevedo writes with a wonderful realism, of Emoni's exhausting daily routine and juggling act, of her tense relationship with her child's father, of the collision in culinary class between her creative cooking style and her teacher's exacting demands. Acevedo creates vivid characters in Malachi, the new student who falls for Emoni, in her best friend Angelica, in Emoni's absentee father, Julio, who is consumed with passion about justice for Puerto Rico but doesn't seem to notice his daughter might appreciate some help.

The role of special foods, of smell and taste, in evoking memories of home, of  Puerto Rico, and Emoni's gift for creating such magic for those she loves adds a delicious dimension to the novel.  Acevedo includes recipes, for such delicious-sounding concoctions as "strawberry milk" and "lemon verbena tembleque" (with the instructions: "best eaten cold while daydreaming about palm trees and listening to an Hector Lavoe classic).

 

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