FACT AND FANCY FOR OLDER READERS
LEAVING ELDORADO, by Joann Mazzio (Houghton Mifflin, 170 pp., $13.95, ages 9-12). After her father leaves for the Yukon in search of gold, 14-year-old Maude Brannigan is stuck in the dirty and dangerous late-19th-century mining town of Eldorado, New Mexico Territory, with no money and nothing but a dilapidated "soddy" for a home. She dreams of escaping poverty - but most of all, she dreams of becoming an artist.
In journal entries written to her mother, who has passed on, Maude tells how she finds work in a local boarding house and describes the people, like a silent Indian girl and a flamboyant prostitute, who cause her to examine her own values and aspirations as a woman.
The novel, Joann Mazzio's second for young adults, reveals the social and economic plight of the few women and girls who lived in these frontier mining camps. It's a strongly feminist tale with an exciting climax.
BULL RUN, by Paul Fleischman, woodcuts by David Frampton (HarperCollins, 102 pp., $14, ages 10 and up). Newbery Medal-winner Paul Fleischman extends his list of books tied to American history with an account of the Civil War's first battle, bloody Bull Run, seen through the eyes of 16 characters, all fictional except one. The voices (from both North and South) include those of a general, a gunner, a doctor, a female slave, a soldier's sister, and a photographer. The sounds and smells of battle, the hot s teamy weather, and the whiz of bullets overhead come alive in this account.
What lingers in the mind most, however, is the characters' expressed eagerness to fight, which by battle's end turns into fear and horror, fully communicating the wretchedness of war.
THE WALLS OF PEDRO GARCIA, by Kevin McColley (Delacorte Press, 100 pp., $15, ages 12 and up). This novel by newcomer Kevin McColley introduces Pedro, a 12-year-old Mexican boy, who works with his grandfather as a fruit picker and hedge trimmer on the estate of Senor de Lupe.
Immediately striking is the poetic and lilting nature of the prose, creating the feeling of an ancient fable or myth. When Pedro arrogantly protests the building of a wall around the estate, he learns that "becoming a man" means more than growing in years. Some images of animal violence in the book may be disturbing.
IS UNDERGROUND, by Joan Aiken (Delacorte Press, 242 pp., $15, ages 10 to 14). Here is another volume in Joan Aiken's "Wolves Chronicles." The adventures of the Twite family continue with Dido's intrepid sister, Is (for Isabel), who discovers that all the children of London are missing. Wicked men have lured them to "Playland," the code name for the deadly coal mines of the north. Is finds her way to the underground city where her rescue operation begins.
Using her special ability to communicate to the children mentally through "thought language," she devises a plan to guide them out of the pits, which includes hypnotizing their captors. Although hypnotism does not figure prominently in the story, the book does have an eerily mystical tone.
All this results in a slightly Dickensian tale, whose elements of fantasy and subtle humor soften the startling images of brutality toward children in 19th-century coal mines, which are based on fact.
NIGHTJOHN, by Gary Paulsen, (Delacorte Press, 92 pp., $14, ages 12 and up). Author of three Newbery Honor books, Gary Paulsen elaborates on the remarkable true story of a slave named Nightjohn, who sacrifices his freedom to teach slave children to read.
Sarny, a slave girl, narrates the story in crude but engaging language. Her joy at learning letters, however, is overshadowed by the author's overly graphic depiction of whippings and torture.
A BONE FROM A DRY SEA, by Peter Dickinson (Delacorte Press, 200 pp., $16, ages 12 and up). As they get older, some teens begin to wonder about the meaning of life, its origin, and their place in it. The subject of evolution may not be warmly greeted by some parents, but award-winning author Peter Dickinson approaches it thoughtfully and creatively.
Vinny accompanies her father to an archaeological dig in Africa. On the same site, more than 4 million years ago, a female hominid named Li lived with her tribe of primitive humans.
Each story unfolds separately, yet the girls seem profoundly linked in their characters. A fossil Vinny finds provides a poignant ending. Theories of humans developing from apes or from sea creatures are discussed, without being technically overwhelming.