In the 1950s, in McCarthy-era New York, the political activist father of high school junior Jamie has just gotten out of jail. Despite a lot of frank and caring talk within the extended Jewish family, the shame and isolation of teenagers — Jamie and her close friend — loom large. Set in an era when abortion was illegal and dangerous, In Trouble (Carolrhoda, $17.95), by Ellen Levine, is an engaging and sobering novel. Jamie’s Catholic friend Elaine confides in her, and uses her as a cover to spend time secretly with her college-age boyfriend. Elaine persists in believing he will marry her, even though he disappears once the reality of her pregnancy sinks in. Jamie hesitantly seeks advice on behalf of her friend, who, to Jamie’s consternation, wants to keep her baby. As the book unfolds, we learn that Jamie has her own traumas. In a note, Levine reminds us that, even in the 21st century, the options available to girls facing unwanted pregnancies are under threat.
Laurel Snyder brings us, in two middle-grade novels, the painful feelings and plucky adventures of two bookish girls who courageously face difficult situations and come out stronger for having struggled with adversity.
In Penny Dreadful (Yearling/Random House, $7.99), a sheltered home-schooled girl’s dad quits his job on the fast track and the family starts to unravel. Then the mom learns that she has inherited from an eccentric great aunt a house in a distant rural community. The family hopes moving there will give them a chance for a new start. They soon learn, however, that the aunt had borrowed against the house and that they are responsible for her huge debts. Our protagonist shows remarkable courage as the family joins the 99%.
In Snyder’s Bigger Than a Breadbox (Random House, $16.99), 12-year-old Rebecca Rose Shapiro is aware of her parents’ arguments and sadness and their differences — one of which is that her dad is Jewish and her mom is not. But she is not prepared to be loaded with her little brother into a car and driven without warning from Baltimore to Atlanta so her mother can sort things out. Rebecca is furious with her mother, misses her dad, her home, and her friends. Then she discovers a breadbox in her grandmother’s attic that magically fills up with whatever she wishes. Some of her wishes get her into serious trouble, leading to a brave denouement.
Anya’s War (Feiwel/MacMillan, $16.99), by Andrea Alban, is an ambitious historical novel. A Jewish family finds refuge from the religious persecutions in 1937 Odessa by relocating to the French Quarter of Shanghai. Anya’s mother is an opera star, her aunt a physician, and her hero the fearless pilot Amelia Earhart. The rich cast of characters includes a father, a brother, a set of demanding grandparents and a young female house servant expert in Chinese folk beliefs. Anya returns from the market on her bicycle one Friday afternoon and discovers an abandoned newborn baby girl she is determined to rescue.
Orchards (Delacorte $17.95) by Holly Thompson is narrated in free verse by protagonist Kana Goldberg. Following the suicide of an eighth-grade classmate who had been thoughtlessly excluded by a clique of girls, Kana is sent from New York for the summer to her mother’s ancestral orange farm in rural Japan. It is the third summer after Kana’s grandfather’s death, and her grandmother is still mourning, and still disapproving of her Jewish son-in-law. The spare but evocative text conveys strangeness, puzzlement, and the meaningful changes that happen through small interactions. Just before the end of her summer, another crisis occurs in New York, and Kana’s Japanese family rallies to care for her. When she returns to New York, she is able to draw on her experience in Japan and her Jewish heritage to cope.
Lily Renee, Escape Artist: From Holocaust Survivor to Comic Book Pioneer (Graphic Universe/Lerner $7.95), by Trina Robbins and illustrated by Anne Timmons and Mo Oh, is the biography of a girl who experienced the best of cultured Vienna, until the Anschluss. Robbins, a cartoonist and self-described “herstorian,” tells Renee’s story — how her parents sent her on the Kindertransport to stay with a family in England, how she ran away, was eventually reunited with her parents, and about her professional success. Among the many highlights of Lily Renee’s career, she drew the comic character Senorita Rio, the Brazilian nightclub entertainer who secretly fought Nazis in South America. “Through Senorita Rio,” writes Robbins, “Lily Renee was able to do what she couldn’t do on her own…. Beat the Nazis.”