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© Bella Stander

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"Living and Learning:
Preteen Protagonists Find Their Ways Through Life's Twists and Turns"
Chicago Tribune
August 20, 2000

by Bella Stander

Totally Confidential
by Sally Warner

Middle-grade fiction doesn't get much better than this lively and insightful tale about a 12-year-old who learns that even the smartest kid doesn't have all the answers to life's dilemmas.

Quinney (officially Mary McQuinn Todd) feels as though she's just floating in her family's life. Her 5-year-old twin brothers have each other (and their invisible friend), as do her increasingly "lovey-dovey" parents. All she has are best friends Marguerite and Brynn, who aren't getting along, and a knack for listening to others and solving their problems. So over the summer between 5th and 6th grades, Quinney secretly advertises herself as a "totally confidential" professional listener, at $1 for a 15-minute session. Business booms: She listens to a precocious and lonely 6-year-old, a woman considering divorce and a man who wants to regain his girlfriend's affections. But when 8th-grade heartthrob Cree, on whom she has a secret crush, seeks her advice and tells her that something dangerous could happen to Marguerite, Quinney starts to feel as though maybe she's not as qualified for her job as she thought she was.

Everything rings true here, from the well-defined characters to the naturalistic dialogue, to the fondly limned Adirondack small town where the action takes place.

Starbright and the Dream Eater
by Joy Cowley

The plot of this book by New Zealander Joy Cowley could be the spawn of a coupling between "The X-Files" and "A Nightmare on Elm Street."

In a nutshell: Ravenous alien being, liberated from a crash-landed meteorite, sucks out humans' life force by entering their dreams. Earth's only hope is the "Bright Star," per a warning sent through the cosmos by beneficent aliens, picked up by an Argentinian astronomer, translated by an ex-Washington Post reporter and suppressed by various scientific and government entities. "Bright Star" turns out to be the eponymous, 12-year-old Starbright, born somewhere in small-town Middle America to a brain-damaged teenager and brought up as her sister.

The plot may be hokey, especially to non-aficionados of sci-fi (such as this reviewer), but Cowley's imaginative use of language (Starbright makes up her own words when the usual ones won't do) and lyrical evocations of setting and emotion make this book soar above others of its ilk. Describing neighbor Mark's trumpet playing: "Notes ran up and down and over the fence, as bright as sunlight. They came out so clear and bold, it was like Mark was saying to the neighborhood, Listen man, this is my real voice."

The Midnight Train Home
by Erika Tamar

In 1927 New York, 12-year-old Deirdre and her two brothers are brought by their destitute mother to the Children's Aid Society and put on an Orphan Train heading west. Little Jimmy is adopted at the first stop, but Deirdre and Sean, 14, are still unclaimed when the train reaches the dusty town of Greenville, Kan. There, despite their vow to stay together, Sean convinces Deirdre to go off with a farm family.

After Sean's train departs, word gets out that the family had bad things in mind for her, so Deirdre is adopted by Rev. Gansworthy. From then on, the action and characters are as cliched as in any "B" melodrama: Small-minded Mrs. Gansworthy and Deirdre's classmates are mean to her; then Deirdre, who always loved singing, runs away with a vaudeville troupe in order to get a free train ride to Texas, where Sean has ended up on a ranch. But the longer Deirdre performs with the troupe, the more she enjoys it. Will she continue on the stage alone, or will she slop hogs and tend horses with Sean way out West?

Joan Lowery Nixon's Orphan Train books are far better written and researched, more exciting and cheaper, since they're out in paperback.

Something Wicked's in Those Woods
by Marisa Montes

After their parents die in a car crash, brothers Javier and Nico Cisneros, 11 and 5 respectively, are sent from their native Puerto Rico to live with Titi Amparo, their aunt, in the hills of northern California. As soon as they arrive, Nico, who barely speaks English, announces that he has a new friend, Hamish Brenden McTavish, whom no one can see but Nico. Javi is immediately suspicious, particularly after Nico appears to play with an unseen companion.

But Amparo, a psychology professor, breezily interprets Nico's invisible friend as a way for the boy to cope with his recent loss. Javi grudgingly makes friends with neighbor Willo, who goes on to carry much of the heavy expository weight in this first novel. Sounding like a professor herself, the 11-year-old spouts forth on paranormal phenomena, ghosts, psychokinesis and basically anything else that will help Javi (and hence the reader) understand the plot machinations.

Marisa Montes' heartfelt chronicling of grief, cultural dislocation and assimilation perk up an otherwise obvious and pedestrian ghost story.

© 2000 Bella Stander

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