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Books in Brief: The Bone Garden by Heather Kassner; Not If I Can Help It by Carolyn Mackler


The Bone Garden by Heather Kassner; Henry Holt, 267 pages ($16.99) Ages 8 to 12.


This dazzling debut novel from Heather Kassner offers a breathtakingly original tale, at once terrifying and thrilling, of a girl conjured up out of bone dust and imagination, and of her struggle to break free of her creator.

Irréelle, with her long white hair, mismatched limbs and ungainly movements, is afraid she is not quite real. She is only tethered to life through the terrifying and cruel Miss Vesper, and Irréelle feels that tether fraying as she tries in vain to please Miss Vesper, traveling through a maze of underground tunnels to gather bone dust from the graveyard. Kassner has a vivid imagination (in a note at the end she reports "I am still dizzy from spinning this story"), and she offers meticulous detail and graceful prose throughout, including the description of Irréelle's task, as, working underground, she gently uses a needlelike extractor to turn bone to dust, carefully collecting the precious dust in tiny vials, from the skull, the collar bone, "moving from head to toe in just the order Miss Vesper had taught her."

Kassner  invents an intriguing back story for the appalling Miss Vesper and how she came to be entombed in her house, almost a tragic figure creating bone dust children to do her bidding.  This beautifully paced, suspenseful novel would by subject matter seem to be a horror story. Irréelle's desperate efforts to please Miss Vesper, her love for Miss Vesper despite her cruelty echo psychological truths about any abusive relationship.  But unlike their creator, the children of "The Bone Garden" have a moral compass: "They saw darkness, just as Irréelle did, but they brought their own light into it. They gave her hope, and maybe she offered them the same, which was almost like being real."


Not If I Can Help It by Carolyn Mackler; Scholastic Press, 230 pages ($16.99) Ages 8 to 12.


In her second novel for middle-grade readers, popular YA author Carolyn Mackler offers a poignant portrayal of Willa, a fifth grader with Sensory Processing Disorder, a condition she has kept secret from her classmates including her very best friend, Ruby.

Mackler uses her son's experience with Sensory Processing Disorder to offer a revealing look at the challenges these children face. Willa's socks have to be soft; she can't tolerate scratchy tags on her clothes or tight collars on shirts. She can only tolerate certain foods; she hates slimy textures. She likes crunchy nachos, but not crunchy carrots. She can't stand perfume or bright overhead lights. "Beyond touch and taste and smell issues, it's also hard for me to control my energy level, and I'm kind of clumsy and I'm always losing things." She sees an occupational therapist twice a week, but tells anyone who asks that she is seeing a math tutor.  At school, she hates gym class and is the target of cutting remarks from her classroom nemesis, Avery. Her parents are divorced, and she lives with her dad and little brother in a small New York City apartment, staying with her mother and her stepfather, who live two hours away, on weekends. Her parents and her occupational therapist understand how to calm her down; she particularly loves squeezing into a special body sock her mother ordered from a sensory website. Best of all, her parents have promised her a dog.

As Willa and her classmates at The Children's School in New York deal with the anxiety of waiting to hear what middle school they've been accepted into, Willa is dealing with a shock at home: her father is in a serious relationship – with her best friend's mother. Willa is angry and upset that her father has waited so long to tell her about this and worries that her secret about her Sensory Processing Disorder will now be exposed. Along with an empathetic portrayal of Willa and her challenges, Mackler offers realistic middle school situations and a wonderful portrait of Willa and Ruby's friendship. Young readers will also be intrigued by the New York City setting, and what it's like to grow up there.

Mackler is the author of popular teen novels "The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things" and "Vegan Virgin Valentine."

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