Three new books for young readers explore challenge – and possibility

Kathie Meizner, Abby McGanney Nolan and Mary Quattlebaum


In the opening pages of Elisha Cooper’s wondrous River (Orchard/Scholastic, ages four-10), a woman waves farewell to two children and an adult and sets out on a 300-mile journey by canoe. Her route – from quiet mountain lakes to the busy headwaters of the Hudson – is filled with adventure, wonder and excitement.

There’s a bear cub who shares the woman’s interest in a blueberry bush, an eagle searching for food and the quiet of being entirely alone. The woman sketches the creatures she encounters – otters, dragonflies, kingfishers. There are plenty of challenges along the way: an encounter with thundering rapids, a tugboat suddenly bearing down on the woman in her small craft, the squall that tips her canoe and loses her tent. In an author’s note, Elisha Cooper estimates that this journey would take about 30 days and “would take considerable planning, stamina, and heart.”

Cooper’s fine-lined pen and watercolour illustrations capture the small details of the trip – the canoe and the way it moves through water, the way the shoreline changes, the shapes of bridges and buildings – and sets them in the wide landscape of river and sky. As moose and bears and starry nights give way to towns, storms and big boats, and finally a welcome home, young readers will feel that they, too, have been on a marvelous, bold voyage. – Kathie Meizner

Born to Fly

Amid a small fleet of excellent picture books celebrating women who embraced aviation in its early days – pioneers like Elinor Smith, Bessie Coleman, Ruth Elder, and of course Amelia Earhart – there’s Born to Fly (Roaring Brook, ages 10 – 14), a group portrait for slightly older readers. Focusing on the 1929 Air Derby, the first official women-only airplane race in the United States, author Steve Sheinkin explores not only how the participants first got the urge to fly and then pursued their passion, but also how they came together to prove that women could handle an airplane as well as men could. The women also faced other, more immediate problems – storms, intense summer heat, equipment malfunction and several incidents of possible sabotage – but they were all determined to test their planes and themselves.

Sheinkin describes these young pilots with his usual knack for indelible details, such as Pancho Barnes’ appetite for “cannibal sandwiches” of onion and raw hamburger meat. He captures the Derby fliers’ ability to think quickly at all altitudes and during fast landings. And he shows how the women bonded on the ground in mourning over the loss of one of their own during the race. – Abby McGanney Nolan


In their brilliant first YA novel Pet (Make Me a World, Ages 12 and up), Akwaeke Emezi takes readers into peaceful Lucille, a city where the monsters of abuse, violence and intolerance have been eradicated during a revolution of the recent past. But has Lucille slipped into complacency and denial? Might monsters still lurk, “hidden nicely by smiles”? Protagonist Jam, must confront these possibilities when a seven-foot-tall, “furry, goldfeathered thing” called Pet emerges from her mother’s painting. It needs her help, it announces, to find and expose a monster – one connected with the loving family of Jam’s best friend. When her disbelieving parents banish Pet, Jam and the creature team up in secret to hunt the monster.

A friendship evolves even as suspense thickens like the smoke frequently swirling around Pet. Emezi ends this stunningly original work of speculative fiction – a finalist for a 2019 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature – not at a moment of victory but in the messy aftermath of the hunt, with a community reeling from the impact of the truth. This embrace of a complex resolution reminds us of Pet’s cautionary words. Though humans may prefer to believe that evil exists elsewhere – far away or long ago – often it is right under our noses that “there are unseens waiting to be seen.” – Mary Quattlebaum