A seafarer's yarn, a drama of life beneath the sea, a revolutionary's biography, a story of wartime courage--here are four new books by popular writers for young adult readers to be enjoyed before the school bell rings.
The Ghost in the Noonday Sun by Sid Fleischman (Greenwillow Books: $11.95; 131 pp.) is the tale of Oliver Finch, age 12, shanghaied by the villainous Captain Scratch, who "squeezed the rain out of his flaming beard as if he were wringing a chicken's neck." Oliver, who is the son of a sailor and dreams of a life at sea, finds himself aboard the Sweet Molly, "as scarred and tattered as a fighting cock," that becomes the Bloody Hand when the captain runs up the skull and crossbones, the pirates' flag.
But Oliver has had the luck to be born on the stroke of midnight, which is supposed to give him a special talent for finding buried treasure. That makes him all the more valuable to Captain Scratch, who means to find that treasure. There's never a dull moment as the story rolls and rollicks along, describing Oliver's adventures, misadventures, and eventual return home, a sailor at last, narrated in Oliver's own robust style.
Fleischman, who has been entertaining young readers for many years and won the 1987 Newbery Award for "The Whipping Boy," first wrote "The Ghost in the Noonday Sun" in 1963. Peter Sis' deft drawings at chapter openings add a nice touch.
Jean Craighead George has a well-deserved reputation for bringing the natural world alive on the page. In Shark Beneath the Reef (Harper Junior Books: $11.95; 182 pp.), she relates the story of Tomas Torres, who fishes for shark with the men in his family off the eastern coast of Baja California. Tomas at 14 is determined to catch a whale shark, and the story is constructed around his pursuit of that prize, with additional subplots tacked on. The Mexican government is trying to force the local fishermen out of business in order to cater to wealthy gringo sportfishermen; Tomas can't make up his mind whether to go back to school or to spend his life fishing; his friend Jose is involved in the dangerous business of making fireworks; his friend Griselda from Mexico City is shockingly different from the women of his village.
But the story's conflicts are less interesting than the fascinating undersea world that George describes. The main character of the novel turns out to be the shark--not the benign whale shark that Tomas thinks he's pursuing, but the deadly hammerhead. This does not have nearly the compelling elegance of George's 1973 Newbery winner, the exquisite "Julie of the Wolves," but it is an interesting study of marine life in the Sea of Cortez and of the people who live by its teeming waters. Tomas may be forgettable; the shark is not.
Che: Latin America's Legendary Guerrilla Leader by Anne E. Neimark Lippincott: $13.95; 113 pp.) opens in 1939 with Ernesto Guevara, an 11-year-old Argentine, being taunted by his school mates for his asthmatic wheezing. It ends with two bullets fired into his body in Bolivia in 1967. In her Author's Note, Neimark tells us that she relied on Guevara's own diaries as well as the memoirs of his companions to produce this fictionalized biography. "I have invented some of the scenes and dialogues," she writes, "but it is also faithful to Che as I came to know him."
Fictionalized biography, however, especially for young readers, often seems to miss both boats. The story of Che's developing political philosophy, his two marriages, his relationship with Castro, his triumphs in Cuba, and his defeat in Bolivia is sometimes burdened by Neimark's prose, often as labored as the asthmatic wheezing she repeatedly describes. Neimark is not given to understatement, but when she finally lets go of her compulsion to invent scenes and dialogues, the narrative builds its own strength. This is a life that needs no fictional dramatization; the facts are enough. Maps and photographs enhance the book, and a bibliography may draw readers to find out more on their own.
Popular novelist Lois Lowry successfully blends fact and fiction in Number the Stars (Houghton Mifflin: $12.95; 137 pp.), and in an afterword sorts out which is which.
The story is set in Denmark in 1943. In October of that year, during the Jewish High Holy Days, the Jews of Copenhagen received a warning that they were to be "relocated" by the Germans who occupied Denmark. The Danes responded by taking in their Jews, and in the weeks that followed helped nearly 7,000 Jews--the entire Jewish population of the small country--escape to Sweden.
Lowry explains that Annemarie Johansen, the 10-year-old heroine--and she is indeed heroic--"is a child of my imagination." So is Annemarie's friend, Ellen Rosen, who must be smuggled out with her parents. But how this was done, the parts played by each member of the Johansen family, and the "secret weapon" that aids in the escape are all based on fact. It adds up to fine storytelling, all the more poignant because it may have happened just this way.