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Books in Brief: Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly, For Black Girls Like Me by Mariama J. Lockington

YOUNG ADULT

Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly; Scholastic, 342 pages ($17.99) Ages 14 and up.

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Award-winning author Jennifer Donnelly offers a fresh and feminist take on the Brothers Grimm version of the Cinderella story in this intriguing novel told from the perspective of Isabelle, the ugly stepsister who cut off her toes, at her mother's command, so she could wear the glass slipper and marry the prince. (Her similarly homely sister, Octavia, had already chopped off her heel to fit in the slipper.) The sisters' mutilated feet were for naught; beautiful, sweet, perfect Ella marries the prince and becomes the queen.

Framing her tale as a contest between the Fates and Chance, with the occasional intervention of a fairy godmother, Donnelly explores the idea of beauty and the limits the world places on women. With their bitter, widowed mother starting to lose her mind, the sisters struggle to put food on the table, as they find themselves mocked in the town square and harassed wherever they go for their legendary meanness to the sister who is now the queen. Isabelle learns from her fairy godmother that she must recover the lost pieces of her heart if she wishes to be happy; her attempts to discover what those lost pieces are propel the action of the novel as the Fates and Chance war over the "map" of Isabelle's life and whether she will be allowed to change her destiny.

Donnelly offers a vivid cast of personalities: the Fate Tantine and her spider-eating accomplice, miserly neighbor Avara and her dull son Hugo, the stable boy Felix, the black stallion Nero. She weaves fairy tale elements into her tale: a pistol-toting monkey wearing pearls, a grateful mouse, the fairy godmother bearing strange gifts. The publisher reports there is interest in a film version;  the novel's climactic finale seems to have been written with a movie in mind.

Donnelly's "Lost in a Book" was an original take on "Beauty and the Beast." She won the Carnegie Medal for her 2003 novel, "A Northern Light," based on the same 1906 murder in the Adirondacks that inspired Theodore Dreiser's, "An American Tragedy." Hers, written from a female perspective, was inspired by the desperate letters written by 19-year-old farm girl Grace Brown to the man who got her pregnant and then murdered her.

CHILDREN'S

For Black Girls Like Me by Mariama J. Lockington; Farrar Straus Giroux, 317 pages ($16.99) Ages 10 to 14.

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Inspired by her own experience growing up as a black child adopted by a white family, Mariama Lockington offers a poignant, unforgettable coming-of-age story of an 11-year-old girl dealing with universal issues of adolescence while grappling with painful questions about culture, identity and finding her voice.

Makeda June Kirkland is upset that her family is moving to New Mexico because she must leave behind her best friend, Lena, also a black girl adopted by a white family. Makeda loves her older sister Eve who has always been her best friend but is now a teenager more interested in kids her own age. And while Makeda loves her parents, they are clueless about the pain Makeda feels in wondering about her birth mother, in the subtle and not-so-subtle racial bias she deals with every day. (As the novel begins, Makeda has opted to stay in the car on the very long road trip rather than use the restroom at the gas station because she's tired of being stared at.)  Makeda's parents are musicians; her mother gave up her concert career to care for her children. She also has serious mental health issues, and the move to a new state brings her to a crisis point. Music, and its power to heal and inform, offers an interesting counterpoint throughout, as Makeda finds relief and sustenance in the blues.

Makeda's interactions with classmates at her new school, the racial bias she deals with everywhere she goes (at a department store dressing room, being called the n-word for the first time) all have the painful ring of truth. In one particularly sweet scene, Makeda experiences a kind of homecoming when her mother takes her to an African-American hair salon for the first time and finds someone who knows exactly what she needs and who sees the beauty of her hair.

PICTURE BOOK

A Piglet Named Mercy by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Chris Van Dusen; Candlewick Press ($18.99).

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This prequel picture book to DiCamillo's "Mercy Watson" books tells the charming story of a piglet who falls off a "pig transport wagon" and shows up at the Watsons' front door, looking pleadingly up, with her snout resting on the morning paper, before making herself at home on Deckawoo Drive (guzzling milk from a bottle, helping herself to toaster). There's a charming 1950s "Leave It to Beaver" quality to both text and illustrations: the Watsons refer to each other as "Mr." and "Mrs." and she wears a dress to do the vacuuming.  (And how funny that the next-door neighbors are elderly sisters, Eugenia and Baby Lincoln.)

 

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