Tuesday, Apr 18, 2006
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Thoughtful choices for young readers

Authors will be featured at Bluegrass Festival of Books

By Cheryl Truman

The Bluegrass Festival of Books at Lexington Center on April 29 will feature numerous authors appealing to children and young adult readers. Here are brief summaries of some of their works, and the age ranges to which they will appeal. (For more information on the festival, visit bluegrassfestivalofbooks.com.)

'Derby Day: A Pop-Up Celebration of the Kentucky Derby'

Written and illustrated by Pamela Pease. Paintbox Press. $36.

Ages: All.

Will appeal to: Anybody who likes to play with pop-ups or has a Derby collection.

A collectable for both kids and Derby-minded adults alike (you know who you are).

This pop-up book tells everything you ever wanted to know, and maybe a little more, about the Kentucky Derby: the atmosphere; the horses; the hats; how horses get to the big race, starting at birth; who does what on a horse farm; and all about Churchill Downs. There's also a big chunk about the Louisville-related hoopla leading up to the Derby.

If you've had experience with pop-up books, there's a lot to love here: not only pop-ups, but ingeniously engineered tabs to pull, doors to open and rose blankets to fluff up.

It's the small touches that really distinguish this book: a miniature flip book of a racing horse, and a mini-CD of the bugler's call to the post.

In fact, this book would make an excellent touch if placed in the gift baskets for the clueless adult celebrities who come to the Derby not knowing their sire from their dam.

'Samurai Shortstop'

By Alan Gratz. Dial Books. 288 pp. $17.99.

Ages: 12 and up.

Will appeal to: Middle and high school students who like a historical narrative and have graduated from American Girl-type books.

Toyo goes to an exclusive Japanese boys' school in 1890. There the students play besoburu; a ball that goes out of the park is called a homu ran.

This book is targeted for middle school and up, although even I, a jaded 47-year-old, found myself drawn to the story line after a somewhat disturbing opening chapter.

The book starts out with a ceremonial suicide of the hero's uncle, precisely rendered. This is a bit off-putting in a story about Japanese students playing baseball. But a number of bigger ideas find their way into this young adult title: assuming the responsibilities of adulthood, learning the traditions of your elders, leadership, generosity toward outsiders -- and bit of cynicism about the motivations of Americans.

Samurai Shortstop is better written than many adult novels. For older children, it can be a read-aloud if they don't mind a bit of gore and some raucous hazing and can catch oblique humor.

'Bad Kitty'

By Michele Jaffe. HarperCollins. 268 pp. $16.99.

Ages: Mature middle school and up.

Will appeal to: The Meg Cabot/Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants crowd.

What happens when a Harvard Ph.D. takes up writing for young adults?

That would be Bad Kitty, which is not really about a cat at all. The heroine is Jasmine, a teenager who stumbles into trouble like other people stumble into breakfast. But she's stylish and funny and mildly sarcastic, and even manages to notice when somebody's nail polish is smudged -- so you know a murder isn't going to be hard to solve, even while pursuing the ephemeral true teen love.

Key adjectives: Visa (meaning it's everywhere you want to be), MasterCard (priceless). Used in sentences such as, "This was so not Visa."

Impressionable minds will learn how to make odd artwork to add to e-mails, nifty instant-message sniping techniques, and the meaning of several words that it never hurts to know when the SATs finally roll around, including bonhomie, blithe and cryogenic: "I was pretty sure my father was researching options in cryogenic grounding, enabling grounding from beyond the grave."

'It's Kind of a Funny Story'

By Ned Vizzini. Hyperion. 448 pp. $16.95.

Ages: The book jacket recommends it for ages 13 and up. But I would say that this is for the very mature 15-year-old at the very earliest, because of references to sex, drugs and scenes of self-destructive behavior.

Will appeal to: This book reminds me of as a teenage boy version of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar. It's targeted at bright but disaffected teenagers.

It's the first line that doesn't let you go: "It's so hard to talk when you want to kill yourself."

It's Kind of a Funny Story is about a teenager's slide into depression after he is admitted to a prestigious high school and discovers that as a high achiever he is, well, just average. What now? About 400 pages of well-written but very graphic teen angst.

Vizzini's writing is reminiscent of authors such as Jonathan Safran Foer (Everything Is Illuminated); he is the talk-about author in young adult fiction. But Vizzini could move into adult fiction without missing a beat.

'Dear Zoe'

By Philip Beard. Viking. 196 pp. $21.95.

Ages: High school to adult.

Will appeal to: Dear Zoe has been compared with the sleeper hit The Lovely Bones for its simple yet emotionally walloping narrative. Would be a great book for reluctant teenage readers or a teen book group.

Although Dear Zoe is about a family reeling with the loss of its youngest daughter, it delivers a spot-on rendering of a first-person teenage girl who is perceptive but will never be called gifted.

And the teen's ruminations on virginity might be good to post on the door of both your daughters and sons: "But it always made me angry, even before, when girls would say they lost their virginity. It sounds so careless, like it was something they couldn't keep track of. ... It's more like you lose part of that feeling that there are things out there waiting for you. Because you've been waiting for it and fearing it and wanting it, and when it finally happens, you find out it's a physical act that begins and ends, and you're mostly sorry to have learned that. It doesn't mysteriously make you a woman. It just makes you a girl who's done it. If there's a word for that, I don't know it yet."

Reach Cheryl Truman at (859) 231-3202 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3202, or ctruman@herald-leader.com.
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