A Scrabble match. A new school. Pie recipes. A lost coat. The ballet. For young teens and preteens, life is generally eventful. But nothing matters as much as relationships. With the right friends, everything seems possible. And without them, well – no one wants to go there. This fall’s crop of books aimed at readers from age 8 into the early teens offers an absorbing range of adventures – but none greater than the adventure of finding a true friend.
1. "Hound Dog True," by Linda Urban
In Hound Dog True (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 160 pp., aimed at ages 9-11), by Linda Urban, protagonist Mattie is scared of just about everything – and worst of all, she’s starting a new school with no notion of how to make friends. But she and her mom have just moved in with her understanding uncle, who is also the school’s custodian.
Hoping to shine as his apprentice, Mattie writes janitorial wisdom in a notebook: days for garbage pickup, don’t leave mops in buckets overnight, pizza day on Tuesdays. When she slips nine washers on her arm like bangle bracelets, her uncle shares these “hound-dog true” words: “Could be one is all you need.” Just like friends.
Urban (author of the terrific 2007 tween novel “A Crooked Kind of Perfect”) weaves bullying, family dynamics, an intimidating teenage girl next door, and a smidgen of janitorial facts into a truly perfect novel. I finished this small gem’s final sentence with a sigh – and then started again at the beginning. I predict young readers will do the same.
2. "Pie," by Sarah Weeks
In Pie (Scholastic, 192 pp., recommended for readers ages 8-12), Sarah Weeks takes readers to Ipswitch, Pa., where young Alice is carefully watching her leopard-print-wearing aunt, Polly Portman, bake top-secret, prize-winning pies. They’re free to all the townspeople who in turn bring her fresh ingredients. Everybody adores Polly and her pies.
But Aunt Polly’s early demise sends the town atwitter. Her favorite niece misses her so much it hurts. The pie-baking world is devastated. Word spreads that Aunt Polly’s fat cat Lardo has been bequeathed the secret crust recipe. Niece Alice inherits Lardo. And so the fun begins. As this delightful caper progresses, some of Polly’s fans attempt to duplicate her pies, while others plot to snitch her crust recipe.
Sprinkled with enticing pie recipes, “Pie” is topped with a plucky redhead and a pinch of mystery. This one will particularly appeal to young readers in search of a deliciously old-fashioned story filled to the brim with fun.
3. "The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman," by Meg Wolitzer
In The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman (Penguin Group, 256 pp., for readers ages 8-12), bestselling adult novelist Meg Wolitzer brings together an unlikely collection of young characters at – of all things – the Youth Scrabble Tournament. A homeschooled skateboarder, a girl on a quest to find the mystery boy she met once on a family vacation, a rich bully – all they have in common is Scrabble.
Then there’s Duncan, an ordinary kid living with his single mom. Duncan “didn’t have any passions, let alone any powers.” Then one night he surprises even himself with his magic fingertips, which could propel him from geekdom to desirable Scrabble partner.
A budding romance and an absent father may speak more to the older end of the middle-grade group, but there’s plenty of kid-friendly humor, adventure, and excitement in Wolitzer’s first foray into writing for this age group. In the end, Duncan and his Scrabble-playing friends make the right, ethical choices and mostly have fun along the way.
4. "The Unforgotten Coat," by Frank Cottrell Boyce
The Unforgotten Coat (Candlewick Press, 112 pp., ages 8-12), by Frank Cottrell Boyce, explores ground (the steppes of Mongolia, serious issues of immigration) not often the topic of books for young readers.
The story begins in Liverpool, England, when two boys appear on the school playground. The younger may be dangerous, in need of calming. Older brother Chingis announces that they are nomads, newly arrived from Mongolia. In class the boys sit next to Julie, the book’s narrator. At the insistence of Chingis, she becomes their Good Guide, their protector to help them navigate this confusing new world.
Illustrated with Polaroids – some that Julie discovers in Chingis’s furry coat left abandoned in the lost and found – the sturdy notebooklike pages of “The Unforgotten Coat” work perfectly with the subject matter. A powerful friendship story? An exotic fantasy? Boyce’s short, funny, touching novel is never what it appears to be. Heartbreaking, compelling, mysterious – it teems with kid appeal.
5. "Bunheads," by Sophie Flack
Nineteen-year-old Hannah Ward, the protagonist of Sophie Flack’s debut novel, Bunheads, (Little Brown Books for Young Readers, 304 pp., suggested for readers age 15 and up) knows more about “The Nutcracker” than she does about high school proms. Having joined the Manhattan Ballet Company quite young, she worries that she’s “missed something great. But then I tell myself that things experienced onstage are usually more exciting than things experienced in real life anyway.” Now Hannah, with the help of an appealing new boyfriend, is awakening to a world outside her life of hair-sprayed buns (thus the book’s title) and fiercely competitive practice sessions.
Difficult choices and evolving relationships meld with an honest picture of the ballet world in this compelling novel for teen readers. Expertly chronicled by a former dancer, the backstage, onstage, and offstage jealousies and friendships of professional ballerinas propel a story that in the hands of a lesser writer could have seemed a tad too light.