Four stories kids can relate to no matter what school or century they're in.
Two are by a master of school stories, one is by a newcomer who writes like she's written them for years and another is from an acclaimed writer-illustrator team.
Troublemaker, by Andrew Clements, Atheneum, $16.99, ages 8-12, 160 pages, 2011. Clayton Hensley thinks the more trouble he gets into at school, the prouder his older brother Mitchell will be. After all, Mitchell was a big problem when he was in school and now he's even gone to jail (for mouthing off at judge). Clayton's sure his own latest infraction at school, drawing a picture of the principal as a jackass, will tickle Mitchell to no end. After all, it's as fearless as anything Mitchell ever did in school and it's clever too. But when Mitchell returns home after serving time, he doesn't sound like himself. Jail was scary, he says; he's done messing up and he's not going to let Clayton ruin his life either. He tells Clayton it's time to do things the smart way; he's even got a plan to do just that. But first Clayton's going to have to trust Mitchell. And by trust, that means change in ways Clayton never imagined. But can he? Will acting "goody-goody" be too much for Clayton? Will he be happy not goofing off? Clements has an amazing ability to make readers want to root for any character, no matter how wrongly they behave or how mean they act. From page 1, readers are drawn to Clayton, despite his smart-alecky disdain for others. And as he embarks on Mitchell's plan to reform his behavior, they cheer him on and even stand by him when he lapses. This is a book every principal should have stacked up in the office to hand out to kids who've lost their way. A joy to read, it's an empowering book for troubled kids, and eye-opening one for anyone who knows who the troublemakers are but doesn't really know them.
Fear Itself (Book 2, Benjamin Pratt & the Keepers School), by Andrew Clements, illustrated by Adam Stower, Atheneum, $14.99, ages 7-10, 240 pages, 2011. Benjamin Pratt and his friend Jill have just 24 days to stop a developer from ripping down their old seaside school to make way for a theme park. But with Jill getting discouraged about how to stop it and a new shifty-eyed janitor watching their every move, what chance do they have? After all, they are just kids. Well, be that as it may be, Ben isn't about to give up. He's a Keeper of the School now, a title passed down to him by the school's janitor with his last, dying breath. That makes Ben the school's secret caretaker, the one person who can save it from being destroyed. But in order to stop the demolition, Ben will have to do what no janitor has done before: search out five safeguards that were hidden in the school by its Civil War founder - and quickly too. And while he's at it, he'd be wise to think like an old sea captain, sneak a document out of the library, tease a tiger and steal a rusty tool box. This is the kind of series that turns nonreaders into readers: a fantastic, easy-to-read story that they won't want to put down and they will hate to see come to an end. (Luckily, we don't have too just yet. Book 3, The Whites of Their Eyes, is due out Jan. 3.)
Calli Be Gold, by Michele Weber Hurwitz, Wendy Lamb, $15.99, ages 9-12, 208 pages, 2011. Eleven-year-old Calli Gold is the only "quiet" in a family of "louds" and it's making her feel like being herself is not enough. There's an implied pressure in her family to be front-and-center and dominate a sport or skill. As Calli puts it, the Gold way is to "shout out who they are and what they do." Older brother Alex is a basketball star and her moody older sister Becca is supposed to be great at synchronized skating -- and Calli? Mom and Dad are always volunteering her for classes to help her find her talent, but nothing ever clicks. Every night at dinner Dad asks the kids to report their "daily accomplishment" and Calli doesn't know what to say. Then one day Calli's class at school begins a peer program with younger kids and Calli discovers something she's really good at, coaxing a shy second-grader named Noah out of his shell. But Mom and Dad don't seem to recognize how great a skill that is. And Calli is feeling small and unheard. Here, she finally has something great to share -- she and Noah have designed a booth for the school's Friendship Fair -- but Mom and Dad can't squeeze in a hour to come and see it. That's because Becca has a big skating competition and Alex's game is crucial, Mom says. Could Calli teach everyone in her family a thing or two? Hurwitz shows that a sad situation doesn't have to leave you glum. Calli is a charming, buoyant heroine, and Hurwitz's writing is so light and fun that readers will find themselves emboldened by her story every step (and page) of the way.
Hornbooks and Inkwells, by Verla Kay, Illustrated by S. D. Schindler, G. P. Putnam's Sons, $16.99, ages 4-8, 32 pages. Two brothers bristle, bicker and get into mischief as they learn to read in this bouncy 18th Century tale. Peter and John Paul are having a hard time knuckling down and doing their schoolwork in their one-room school house. But with the help of a stern schoolmaster who thwacks his stick at them, grabs their ears and even detains them in neck yokes, these wily boys might just learn something yet. Kay's spare, lively rhymes (what she calls "cryptic rhymes" -- short, descriptive verses with hidden meaning) and Schindler's humorous folk art make this a hoot to read. Readers will be charmed by the ways of old, the quills and lesson paddles (hornbooks), and especially the games children played at recess: walking on stilts and rolling clay marbles. But they'll also be thanking their lucky stars that yokes are a thing of the past and they don't have to run out into the cold to an outhouse. If you like this gem, check out Kay and Schindler's other historical picture books, such as Whatever Happened to the Pony Express? and Covered Wagons, Bumpy Trails. Schindler is also the illustrator of the Newbery Honor winning novel Whittington, the retelling of the English folktale Dick Whittington and His Cat, by Alan Armstrong.