Literary Wardrobes, a Cat, and Kids saying, “Whoa!”

Lynn and Cindy: We LOVE books that get kids talking and there is nothing like time travel or portal travel and ambiguous resolutions to make that happen! If you love that too we have such a treat for you. We have two new books that are wildly different from each other but who share some important connections. Yup – wardrobe portals to other times or places, lots of references to well-loved books in the genre, compulsive plots and endings that are guaranteed to make kids say, “Whoa!”

Lynn:  Da Vinci’s Cat ((Harper/Greenwillow, 2021) by Catherine Gilbert Murdock is an enchanting and intriguing story set in the 1500s and also the present, featuring a noble young hostage to the Pope, a modern young girl just moving into a new house, famous artists a mysterious cat and cabinet that connects them all. Packed with historical figures and backed with terrific research, the details of both settings are vivid and the historical and cultural background necessary for young readers is provided seamlessly. Sympathetic characters are at the heart of this story but the mindblowing aspects of time travel power the plot and enhance the tension. Readers walk with Federico and Bee as they explore the puzzle of the cabinet, sharing in the initial puzzlement, then giddy excitement, and finally in the horrifying realization of the future altering consequences.

There is plenty of humor provided by the two protagonists’ encounters with each other and with centuries of differences in culture, manners, and clothing. The introduction of the famous art and artists is one of the highlights here – who knew Michelangelo shunned baths! This fascinating item and more will certainly send many young readers to look up the artists and their works involved in the story. Juno, Da Vinci’s cat with an intriguing connection to Schrodinger’s Cat, and the time-traveling closet are such clever devices and Murdock incorporates them into a compelling story in a brilliantly effective way.

Cindy: I’m sorry that we are tempting you with a book that won’t publish until May 25th, but know that we are as eager as you are to see the finished book with “Decorations” by Caldecott Medalist Paul O. Zelinsky. Federico is based on a boy hostage of Pope Julius II, who, according to the author’s note, in the galley lived in “the papal palace for three years, befriending artists and attending countless banquets.” The story that Murdock spins from this and her research of Raphael and Michelangelo is fascinating but told well for her young audience who may need an introduction to the players and the times. Like her Newbery Medal novel, The Book of Boy, Murdock says this is “fantasy grounded in fact.” And, it’s a fact that this novel is fantastic.

The galley blurb promises that Da Vinci’s Cat is recommended for readers who loved When You Reach Me and A Wrinkle in Time. Coincidentally, David Levithan’s introduction in his new book mentions both of these titles as inspiration for writing his own middle-grade book with fantasy elements.  The Mysterious Disappearance of Aidan S. (as told to his brother)  (Knopf, 2021) is quite different from Murdock’s book, but it’s also quite different from Levithan’s previous books, and not just that it’s written for a younger audience than his previous teen titles.

A tale of two brothers, one of whom disappears, is a page-turner from the very beginning. Lucas’ older brother Aidan just vanishes one day and a police search begins. Six days later he shows up and his answers to questions about where he’s been are hard to believe. The adults all think Aidan is covering, but our narrator, Lucas, is determined to get to the truth. Is there a place with fantastical beasts and green-colored skies? If there is, why does his brother want to return there so badly and leave this world behind? I don’t want to give away much more, it’s more fun to journey with Lucas through his investigation and ponderings while innocent. One thing is sure, David may have changed his target audience and paid tribute to the novels he loved as a tween, but his themes of love and acceptance shine through brightly and aren’t hidden behind any doors, be they on closets or magical wardrobes. I only wish that Levithan could jump into Da Vinci’s time-traveling wardrobe and take a copy of this book back to his 12-year-old self. I’d like that kid to tell adult David to keep writing middle grade books as well as teen and adult.

Lynn: I loved David’s book too! The voice of Lucas, the younger brother and narrator was simply terrific—a thoughtful observer of events and interactions around him, is spot on, believable and compelling. Lucas’ story is the device that raises the issues, spots the inconsistencies and then assesses the reactions. Lucas reports both what he sees and hears but what is also unsaid or remembered—beautifully increasing the feeling of uncertainty and doubt. This is both an urgent, can’t-put-it-down story and a thoughtful set of powerful observations that require a pause to consider—not an easy combination to pull off. What is truth, what is the impact of truth on the listener when what may be the truth is unimaginable? Should the truth always be told and when and why would you alter it?

David skillfully plants seeds of doubt everywhere in Lucas’ narration, leaving the reader always feeling slightly off-center. Often young readers dislike open-ended stories but those stories motivate them to have instant conversations and that is a powerful thing. Some readers of both of these books will race through them and more sophisticated readers are going to discover so much to consider. All readers are going to find that both stories linger long after the pages are finished. And one more terrific quality of both of these books is that they are absolutely perfect read-alouds for classrooms or to use as book club books. Brace yourselves for LOTS of conversations!

Once Upon a Now: The Longest Night of Charlie Noon

Cindy: I’ll say right off the top that I’m not convinced this book is entirely successful but I admire Christopher Edge for creating a story that is unique and thought-provoking. The Longest Night of Charlie Noon (Delacorte, 2020) starts with an intriguing opening:

Once upon a time doesn’t exist.
This story starts once upon a now.

Friends Charlie and Dizzy and bully Johnny become lost in the woods while trying to decode messages left there, perhaps by a child-eating monster. More dangerous, perhaps, is the woods itself and the night that falls more quickly than usual, the storms that threaten, and the stars that are not in their familiar constellations. As the night wears on and the weather changes impossibly, the children are not only lost in the woods but maybe, lost in time. Forget the monster, it may be the woods that gets them.

Edge plays with Einstein’s special theory of relativity and presents a story that is at once a page-turner creepy adventure and a thoughtful look at friendship, the fluidity of time, and who we choose to be. The book has two starred reviews already, so perhaps it is entirely successful; regardless, it’s a book for those kids who need challenging books without mature content. There’s plenty to think about here.

Lynn: Christopher Edge is doing a lot of things in this slim book. He’s got mystery, suspense and a bit of horror, a story of friendship and bullying, and kids finding their strengths. And he also has time travel. As a lifelong reader of science fiction, I am accustomed to being confused when I tackle time travel. I expect to be confused! Young readers have differing reactions to feeling off-footed by a plot. Some dislike it and others embrace it. Here, Edge helps readers to keep going when time travel adds its slippery effect by giving kids a lot of incentive to keep going. Charlie is in a dire situation and wondering what will happen next is a terrific impetus to keep turning the pages. And then there are the puzzling codes and, oh yes, the possibility of a kid-eating monster! It is cleverly designed to propel kids through what may be for some an off-putting sense of not really knowing what is going on. When they come out of the woods in the morning with the three protagonists, readers will find a lot of rewards. They’ll get a satisfying conclusion to the story, a summary of what happens to the characters when they grow up, and answers to at least some of their questions. Kids are going to want to immediately share and discuss the story, another great feature. Edge provides extensive and interesting back matter in “The Science in the Longest Night of Charlie Noon.” Here he explains the codes, code-breaking, and complicated concepts such as Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and the speed of light.

Perhaps the biggest reward of all here for young readers is in understanding that being confused for a while in a book can be a really great thing!