Amber & Clay by Laura Amy Schlitz; illustrated by Julia Iredale; Candlewick Press, 544 pages ($22.99) Ages 10 to 14.
The fates of a wealthy Athenian girl named Melisto and a Thracian slave boy named Rhaskos are inextricably linked in this brilliant, breathtakingly beautiful, meticulously researched narrative of 5th century B.C.E. Greece.
Laura Amy Schlitz, a master of historical fiction, weaves her marvelous tale in free verse, using the crotchety voices of the gods and the voices of Sokrates, of Melisto, of Rhaskos and more.
Rhaskos is a lad of five but toils long hours cleaning dung from the stables. He is overcome with wonder when he enters the master's home and sees a painting of a horse; his secret dream is to draw such horses himself. His mother, Thratta, is sold and shipped off to Athens but before parting with her son she carves tattoos into his arms so she will know him if she finds him again.
Melisto leads a boring life stuck indoors weaving, the lot of girls who one day will be married; her mother despises her for her willfulness and lack of beauty and has physically assaulted her more than once. Happy to escape her mother's cruelty, Melisto is thrilled to be among the girls chosen to serve as Little Bears to Artemis, goddess of the hunt. Intoxicated with her new freedom, Melisto defies warnings not to get too close to the chained bear cub, with tragic consequences.
When Rhaskos angers his petulant young master and is sold, he is purchased by a potter. Will he have a chance to escape slavery, to become the artisan he dreams of being? Along the way he makes the acquaintance of Sokrates, engaging in several fascinating discussions with him in the days leading up to his trial.
The art work at the beginning of each section depicts an ancient artifact: horse bits, shards of pottery, a terra cotta doll, a necklace of palm leaves with an amber sphinx, a vase, a fragment from the poet Sappho. These images serve as a wonderfully subtle parallel narrative to the text.
Laura Amy Schlitz is the author of numerous other excellent works of historical fiction including Newbery Medal-winning "Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices From a Medieval Village," "The Hired Girl" and "A Drowned Maiden's Hair."
Lobstah Gahden: Speak out against pollution with a wicked awesome Boston accent! by Ally Brydon & EG Keller; pictures by EG Keller; SourceBooks, 40 pages ($17.99) Ages 4 and up. (April 6 publication)
Two crusty crustaceans, finicky Walter and boisterous Milton, are gardeners competing against each other in the Swell Gahdens contest on the ocean floor. They must forget the rivalry and join forces to fight the trash (automobile tires, garbage, even a toilet) coming down from the surface.
This hilarious book, with its Odd Couple protagonists, lively narrative and energetic illustrations, publishes in time for Earth Day. (Yes, Walter had quite the blue thumb. He was hip to the latest underwater gahdening trends. Native kelps! Ornamental grasses! Rainbow algae!)
Allergic: A Graphic Novel by Megan Wagner Lloyd and Michelle Mee Nutter; Scholastic/Graphix, 240 pages ($24.99, $12.99 paperback) Ages 8 to 12.
10-year-old girl Maggie has been waiting forever to get a dog, but her severe allergic reaction upon first meeting the puppy from the pound means it can't happen in this sweet and informative graphic novel inspired by the author's own experience with allergies.
Maggie's family situation adds to her distress. Her twin younger brothers seem to only be interested in each other. Her mother is expecting a baby any day. Allergy testing reveals Maggie is highly allergic to fur, feathers and more; the class guinea pig has to be moved into another room, thanks to Maggie. There's a disastrous incident involving pet mice who manage to multiply. A new neighbor seems simpatico, but doesn't quite comprehend the extent of Maggie's allergy problem. Lloyd comes up with a sweet solution to Maggie's pet-less state in this sympathetic treatment of the constraints on children with allergies.