My Jasper June by Laurel Snyder; Walden Pond Press, 291 pages ($16.99) Ages 8 to 12.
School is out, it's June in Atlanta and for the first time 13-year-old Leah is not going to summer camp. It's been a year since her family was struck by tragedy, and nothing in their lives has been right since then: Her parents are silent, caught up in their own worlds and apparently oblivious to their daughter's pain, and her friends, not knowing what to say to her, have left her behind.
Left to her own devices for the summer, Leah is wandering on a nearby farm one day when she runs into a red-haired girl about her own age sleeping on a rock. Outgoing, worldly-wise Jasper is unlike anyone Leah has ever met, and the two instantly become friends. There's an air of mystery about Jasper and the family she won't talk about, and Leah finds welcome solace in hanging out with her, inviting her to her house to shower, watching TV with her.
For Leah, there's something magical about Jasper's hideaway, covered with vines, on the farm; practical Jasper is well-aware of its lack of comforts. The girls paint vines on the wall of their two bedrooms, pretending a magic corridor connects their two homes, and Leah half-believes it might actually be true.
Told as Leah's first-person narrative, the novel waits to reveal the tragedy that befell her family and her guilt about what happened. When Jasper confides in Leah about her own terrible family situation, Leah must wrestle with how best to help her friend while keeping her secrets. After a wild storm hits, reality finally intrudes, Leah's parents intervene and Leah must decide if their friendship is worth fighting for. Snyder offers a sympathetic and realistic portrait of a family riven by grief and a homeless teen doing her best to survive along with a beautiful tale of friendship in this memorable and magical coming-of-age tale.
Douglas by Randy Cecil; Candlewick Press ($19.99). Ages 5 to 8.
A mouse lives a charmed life feasting on buttered popcorn at the local movie house until she falls asleep in a girl's comfy sweater pocket during a matinee and is carried off on an adventure in this charming tale, Randy Cecil's second book set in a quaint town of yesteryear called Bloomville.
The girl names the mouse Douglas after her favorite actor, Douglas Fairbanks, but the girl's sister reclaims the sweater and Douglas, still in the pocket, finds herself in danger, from cats, small boys and broom-wielding ladies, escaping with the same courage and derring-do one might expect from Fairbanks as Robin Hood on the silver screen.
From the safety of a rooftop, Douglas ponders her plight: "Off in the distance, the Majestic Cinema sparkled in the morning sun: the cinema, where there were no broom-wielding women or enormous beasts and popcorn fell like rain."
Cecil's striking duotone illustrations and the droll humor and gentle suspense of Douglas's many narrow escapes will charm the target age group.
The Shortest Day by Susan Cooper, illustrated by Carson Ellis; Candlewick Press ($17.99)
"So the shortest day came, and the year died." So begins this lovely poem, originally written by Newbery Medal-winning author Susan Cooper for John Langstaff's "Christmas Revels," a joyful theater celebration of the winter solstice that is performed across the country.
Cooper's powerful poem is now a lovely picture book with evocative illustrations by Caldecott Honor winner Carson Ellis. Ellis' paintings take us back across the millennia, capturing the fear and the hope of humans through the ages - hunters with spears, peasants gathering wood in the snow, country dwellers "singing, dancing, To drive the dark away."... "Through all the frosty ages you can hear them/Echoing behind us - listen!" In an afterword, Cooper notes that "It's a universal impulse, this celebration of the light as a symbol of continuing life."