October 20, 2011


The Pet Shop Revolution. By Ana Juan. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $17.99.

Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match/Marisol McDonald no combina. By Monica Brown. Illustrations by Sara Palacios. Children’s Book Press. $17.95.

A Beautiful Dark. By Jocelyn Davies. HarperTeen. $17.99.

The Girl of Fire and Thorns. By Rae Carson. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.

     The strength of female protagonists means different things to the different age groups for which books are intended – but whether young girls or teenagers, the central characters in all these new books show pluck, determination and a willingness to confront whatever obstacles stand in their path. It’s just that the obstacles become more complex as the young girls become young women.

     The Pet Shop Revolution is all about the largest pet shop in town – a very unhappy place indeed, even though the animals there range from the common to the highly exotic. The problem is the owner, Mr. Walnut, a sour and sour-faced man obsessed with the wig he always wears and with selling animals at high prices to out-of-towners who are unaware of how badly he treats the creatures. Enter Mina, a very determined little girl whose pet rabbit disappears one day and who is convinced the rabbit has somehow ended up in Mr. Walnut’s shop. Abetted by Bobo, “a local boy who delivered ice for the penguins,” Mina sneaks into the pet shop, finds her bunny, waits until Mr. Walnut falls asleep, and then sets all the animals free. Ana Juan’s marvelous illustrations are at their best in the two-page spread of Mina, riding an ostrich and carrying her bunny, leading a stampede that includes a penguin, a hippo, a monkey, a toucan, a kangaroo, a giraffe, a zebra and other former captives of Mr. Walnut. Mina is smiling in this picture – with a smile wiser than her years – and it soon turns out that her kind heart even reaches out to crabby Mr. Walnut (who will not leave the house without his wig, which exited with the animals). While the animals, Mina and Bobo play and party, Mr. Walnut fumes – until he eventually comes up with an idea that brings all the animals back, along with Mina, Bobo and the rich clients…who now have something other than poorly treated animals to buy. Juan does a wonderful job of preventing the story from becoming preachy or overly sentimental, while at the same time keeping it heartwarming.

     The dual-language Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match/Marisol McDonald no combina is heartwarming in a different way. Marisol’s story, like Mina’s, is for ages 4-8, but the only animals in Monica Brown’s book are ones that Marisol draws – such as the pink elephant wearing eyeglasses – and a happy puppy whose features don’t match. Marisol is a nonconformist, with brown skin and red hair, who loves outfits that combine green polka dots and purple stripes, and who likes to eat peanut-butter-and-jelly burritos. But Marisol is also sensitive to criticism, and she is told again and again, especially by her friends, that she couldn’t match if she wanted to. Determined to show that she could match if she so chose, Marisol finds a single-color outfit to wear to school one day, and agrees to play pirates with her friend at recess – even though she really wants a game of “soccer-playing pirates.” When her drawings lack their usual punch, her art teacher asks what is going on – and slips Marisol a note saying that she, the teacher, likes Marisol just as she is. Delighted, Marisol returns to her preferred non-matching ways, opening the door to finding a pet dog that is perfect because “he’s mismatched and simply marvelous, just like me.” Sara Palacios’ charming illustrations help move the story along effectively, and the bilingual text provides a perfect opportunity for young readers whose first language is English to learn some Spanish – and vice versa. As for Marisol’s celebration of being unique, that is a joy in any language.

     The teen heroines of two new books that are the beginnings of trilogies have grander worries and ambitions, and far more to overcome, in order to take their rightful places in the authors’ worlds. Jocelyn Davies’ A Beautiful Dark is another entry in the increasing number of romantic fantasies about angels – featuring a protagonist with the rather obvious name of Skye. Actually, Skye is human, but her parents weren’t: they were (not unusually for this genre) a Romeo-and-Juliet pair, one a Guardian and one a Rebel, who fell in love and were turned mortal as punishment. But because of her genetic heritage, or angelic heritage, Skye holds both dark and light power within her, and now that she is 17, her angelic abilities will start to manifest. How they will show up, and what she will do with them, is the subject of the book. There are, of course, competing forces representing the two angelic sides, in the persons of two mysterious and attractive boys named Asher (friendly, dark and wild) and Devin (laid-back, even reserved, and golden). Naturally, Skye is attracted – in different ways – to both boys, and naturally, that attraction is supposed to mirror her conflict about which side to join when her powers emerge fully. Oh, by the way, the fate of the universe hangs on her decision. There is not a shred of believability about any of this, but there is not supposed to be. Davies, here offering her first novel, has picked up just about every clichĂ© of the supernatural-romance genre and played them back in entirely expected ways. Readers who like this sort of thing will find this a (+++) book despite its many glaring points of obviousness, both in plotting and in what passes for characterization.

     Rae Carson’s The Girl of Fire and Thorns is also a first novel, also in the fantasy genre (although not the same part of it), and also deserving of a (+++) rating for teens looking for a new entry in a familiar field. This book is in the vaguely medieval fantasy arena, the central character being a 16-year-old princess named Elisa. There is no question about what is special about her: she has been chosen for greatness, an event that occurs every century. But she has never done anything particularly interesting and has always lived in the shadow of her older sister, who has now been married to the king of a country that is in the throes of a rebellion. It should go without saying that there will be a daring, dashing revolutionary who will awaken new feelings in Elisa; and there is. There is magic here, too, with dark forces hunting Elisa to destroy her before she can fulfill her destiny. As for what that destiny is – well, it may simply be to die young, as most of those chosen for greatness have in the past. Carson writes 21st-century-romance dialogue that does not fit particularly well with her faux-medieval settings: “You can’t possibly walk.” “We’ll try it.” “Your eyes. They do something to me.” “You are braver than you know, Princess.” “I don’t feel lucky.” “I’m so sorry.” She makes it a point to toughen Elisa up by sending her into frightening scenes: “I hurry through smoldering streets and curving alleys, blinking to keep my eyes moist, desperate to find life. I nearly stumble over the charred body of an animal – I can’t tell if it’s a sheep or a dog – and I almost vomit over the smell of burned meat, the reddish ooze leaking through cracks in its charred skin.” But there is nothing particularly unusual in Elisa’s journey of self-discovery. Both Carson’s book and Davies’ feature increasingly strong young women at their center, but neither gives much indication that it is the first book in a trilogy that will contain anything more than the minimum that genre readers will expect.

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