Wildwing. By Emily Whitman. Greenwillow. $16.99.
Flipped. By Wendelin Van Draanen. Knopf. $8.99.
The Ruby Notebook. By Laura Resau. Delacorte Press. $16.99.
Jake. By Audrey Couloumbis. Random House. $15.99.
What Happened on Fox Street. By Tricia Springstubb. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $15.99.
Sex may sell for adults, but love sells for teenagers and preteens. (Sex does too, especially for teens, but usually in the context of love.) Whether in fantasy worlds or in something approaching reality, love stories designed to appeal to today’s young readers have certain themes in common – often that of love as an escape from a troubled life. That is the basis of Emily Whitman’s Wildwing, a time-travel tale initially set in England in 1913 and then in a much earlier era. Addy Morrow, at 15, is about to be forced by her mother and her birth station to become a servant to old Mr. Greenwood. It is time to leave school, “because no matter how quick and bright you may be, you’ll still wear a maid’s apron when all is said and done,” as Mum puts it. It turns out there is an always-locked room in Mr. Greenwood’s house, and Addy and Mr. Greenwood develop a connection of sorts (through Shakespeare), and Addy inevitably goes into the not-to-be-entered room, and then things get really interesting. For the room turns out to be some sort of elevator, and it somehow transports Addy back to medieval times, where she is somehow mistaken for the soon-to-be-bride of a lord, Sir Hugh of Berringstoke. Trapped in the past, Addy is well treated while she maintains the deception of who she is; but there is a complicating factor in the form of William, a falconer’s son, to whom she is drawn even though he is far beneath her supposed station. Eventually Mr. Greenwood also shows up in the past, and everything gets very complicated indeed when it turns out that Mr. Greenwood’s long-lost son is also in the past (it’s crowded back there). Addy finds a way to return to her own time, but further complications ensue and impossibility piles upon impossibility until true love eventually conquers all – including time itself. As readers surely know from the start that it will.
The time span of Flipped is much smaller, but plenty happens within it, too. Wendelin Van Draanen’s 2001 novel is now available in paperback, in an edition tied into this year’s release of a movie directed by Rob Reiner. The title refers to the flipping back and forth of feelings and opinions between Juli Baker and her neighbor, Bryce Loski. The two have known each other since they were both seven years old and in second grade, and Juli has had a crush on Bryce for years – as well as passion for other things, including raising chickens for their eggs and sitting in a sycamore tree to connect with it and the natural world. The tree-and-chickens interests, however, have made Bryce consider Juli rather weird, so he has never returned her affection. But in eighth grade, things reverse, as Bryce realizes that Juli’s unusual ideas and attitudes make her different in a very special way – while Juli decides that there isn’t much to Bryce after all. After a while, each of the two finds unexpected depth in the other, and by the end – thanks to, yes, a sycamore sapling – there is the possibility (although not the certainty) of growing a relationship as well as a tree. The book is touching, and more innocent than many written for young teenagers.
The Ruby Notebook is faster-paced and more dramatic, with multiple flips of feeling and attitude. It is a followup to Laura Resau’s The Indigo Notebook, which featured Zeeta and her wanderlust-driven mother, Layla, who teaches English and moves to a different country every year. Layla is a real character, described by Zeeta in the first book as “a cute, disheveled hippie chick in a slightly see-through cotton wraparound skirt tucked over her knees, with her bare toes peeking out,” and with boyfriends galore. Zeeta, studious and a note-taker, tended to be upstaged by her mother when the two appeared in the same scenes in the previous book. But in The Ruby Notebook, Zeeta, who is now 16, has plenty of adventures of her own. The story takes place in Aix-en-Provence, France, to which Layla and Zeeta have moved after leaving Ecuador – and Zeeta’s newfound boyfriend, Wendell – behind. The good news for Zeeta is that Wendell is coming to Aix-en-Provence for a summer program. The bad (or at least strange) news is that Zeeta feels oddly drawn to a street performer named Jean-Claude, and has been receiving notes and gifts from a secret admirer. The result is that Zeeta pulls back from Wendell when he does arrive – until the two, pushed by circumstance, find themselves working together to search for a hidden underground spring with supposedly miraculous curative powers. Bound up in all this is Zeeta’s determination to find her father, who – according to Layla – came out of the water in the Greek islands, like a selkie, and whose face Layla never saw clearly in the one night they spent together. This part of the book is overdone to the point of silliness, but Resau uses the fairy-tale element effectively to set up some of Zeeta’s adventures, which involve others’ uncertainties about their families. The Ruby Notebook is full of secrets and untold love and emotional drama, plus visions and anticipations and a sprinkling of the supernatural. And it ends, not surprisingly at all, with many things unresolved, to be picked up in Resau’s next series entry.
Books for slightly younger readers – ages 8-12 – tend to handle family, love and family love somewhat more straightforwardly, as Jake and What Happened on Fox Street both do. Jake is a Christmas story about a 10-year-old boy whose mother breaks her leg shortly before the holiday and must be hospitalized, leaving Jake in the care of a grandfather he barely knows (it has always been Jake and his mother – no father). The book is full of typecast characters, from the crusty granddad with stories to tell, to his scary (but not bad) dog, to the helpful neighbor; and everyone interacts pleasantly and eventually forms a sort of temporary extended family, just in time for the holiday. Audrey Couloumbis paces the book well but does not hesitate to tug the heartstrings at every opportunity – understandable in a seasonal work, true, but still a little on the cloying side. Ditto What Happened on Fox Street, where the missing family member is Mo Wren’s mother and the neighborhood itself becomes a character in the book (and is depicted with more depth than some of the humans). Tricia Springstubb’s debut novel is all about loss – Mo actually makes a list at one point of the things that are missing from various people’s lives – and also about new beginnings. The writing varies from the pointed and even elegant to the clichéd; Springstubb’s style seems still to be developing. The plot is partly about who lives on Fox Street and how everyone interacts, and partly about whether Mo and her father will have to move away from Fox Street and the only home Mo has ever known. “‘A house is just four walls and a roof,’” says Mo’s dad, but not for Mo, and not for Mo’s younger sister, Dottie, either. A climactic search for missing Dottie during a big storm – a scene that also involves the never-seen fox of Fox Street – leads the sisters and their father to new levels of understanding and a better sense of what makes a family as well as what makes a neighborhood. By the book’s end, there has been little change in the Wrens’ external circumstances but much of it in their internal alignments. Everyone learns that despite the pain of what is absent, it is possible to look toward a future filled with new and wonderful, if different, things – a message that, if a tad simplistic, is certainly warm and heartfelt in its suggestion of the transferability and malleability of love.