Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All by Laura Ruby; Balzer + Bray, 358 pages ($17.99) Ages 14 and up.
This soaring, stunning novel – a finalist for the National Book Award – takes its inspiration from Laura Ruby's mother-in-law's experience at the Guardian Angel Orphanage in Chicago during the 1930s and '40s. Ruby's mother-in-law – like the Frankie Mazza of the novel – was left at the orphanage with her brother and sister by her father after their mother's death. When her father remarried, he took his son and his second wife's children out of the orphanage, but left his own two daughters there.
Narrated by a ghost who has her own terrible history to reveal, Ruby's enthralling narrative tells the story of Frankie Mazza and her life in the orphanage against the backdrop of the Great Depression, Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entry into World War II, "the churning furnace of the world." It's a tale of the fragility of hope, of the rush of first love, of the immensity of loss, of the power of our own stories, of the barbarous cruelty inflicted on so many girls and women, of the courage required for a girl to venture alone through a doorway, to challenge the wolves.
Ruby paints a vivid picture of the orphanage, long hours of church, confession, terrible food ("lumpy puddings, squashy parsnips and half-cooked stews," porridge that "lurched in the bowl as if it were alive"), girls picking lice out of each other's hair, stiff punishments for the most minor infractions, a yellow line down the play yard separating girls from boys.
Frankie knows only the world of the orphanage and the messages from the priests and nuns about sin, guilt, hellfire and brimstone that often contradict her common sense and humanity ("was it a sin to eat when you were hungry?"). When Frankie is faced with a new betrayal by her family, learning that her father is moving to Colorado with her brother and his new family without her: "She didn't need anyone thundering at her in church. The ground had already opened up and swallowed her whole."
The ghostly narrator is one Pearl Brownlow, who apparently died of influenza in 1918. She offers her own tale of betrayal by her family; another tale of betrayal comes from Marguerite, the ghost of a beautiful young black woman Pearl first encounters in the Chicago Public Library.
In an author's note at the end, Ruby talks about the inspiration for the story, in her mother-in-law's experience at the Guardian Angel Orphanage, explaining her novel is "a story about girls. Girls with ambitions, brains, desires, talents, hungers. It is a story about how the world likes to punish girls for their appetites, even for their love."
In Ruby's novel, women are eager participants in the punishment of girls. She paints vivid portraits of Pearl Brownlow's mother ( "When she was angry, her lips pulled tight like a row of sutures") and Frankie's nasty stepmother Ada whose mouth "curled like wet paper." Then there's sadistic German nun Sister George who amuses herself kicking the girls, mattress and all, out of bed in the morning, cuts off Frankie's hair as punishment and delivers a vicious beating. The male villains of the piece include Pearl's abusive and duplicitous fiance and Frankie's father, a shoemaker so handsome he looks like a movie star, and whose worst transgression comes to light late in the tale.
The title reference is explained: "In stories, girls are always opening doors, always the wrong ones. Always crossing thresholds thinking they're getting away free. Nothing is free.... It doesn't matter which door you open, she said. Three or ten or thirteen doorways, there are wolves behind them all."
Frankie has emerged through a doorway as the novel opens, in 1946. It's a chapter to return to, after the final page.
Roar Like a Dandelion; words by Ruth Krauss, drawings by Sergio Ruzier; Harper Collins ($17.99) Ages 4 to 8.
This never-before-published book by the late Ruth Krauss ("A Hole Is To Dig") is a real gem, turning the conventions of the traditional ABC book upside down with its playful humor and whimsy and use of action words rather than nouns. For the letter B: "Butt like a billy goat." For the letter G: "Go like a road." For the letter P: "Paint a picture of a cage with an open door and wait." And for the letter V: "Vote for yourself." This is a true celebration of imagination and affirmation.
Geisel Honor illustrator Sergio Ruzzier (“Fox & Chick” stories) matches the text with his warmly whimsical illustrations, dedicated to Maurice Sendak. (“Crow like a rooster, make the sun come up” features a rooster staging a puppet show, with the sun as a puppet, for a crowd of appreciative baby chicks.)