Arts & Entertainment

Word Play: Awakenings

FictionFamilyAl CaponeCrime, Law and JusticeHorse (animal)Jails and PrisonsHenry Holt

It's not quite fair that a novelist who has had such success in the adult world -- among many awards, Jane Smiley won the Pulitzer Prize for "A Thousand Acres," her novel based on "King Lear" -- can shift gears apparently effortlessly and write for middle-schoolers. "The Georges and the Jewels" (Alfred A. Knopf: $16.99, ages 10 and up) bears none of the signs of a literary writer slumming it for the kids -- no condescension, just the keen interest in what makes life tick that animates all of Smiley's fiction, but with a seventh-grade narrator. I have never admired her writing as much as I do in the first of what promises to be a series of books for children.

Abby's father is a dealer in horses, and the most valuable animals to him are the ones about which he can say: "A little girl can ride him." Abby is, therefore, an important part of the business, especially since Abby's older brother, Danny, left their California farm at a young age and is no longer on speaking terms with their inflexible father. Abby shows the horses to prospective buyers and keeps up much of the horses' training schedule. It's a busy life, what with seventh grade starting and all. "I've never heard anyone who had a single nice thing to say about seventh grade," Abby remarks.

In the high-turnover horse-dealing business, it's important not to fall in love with the animals, so Abby's father names all the males "George" and all the females "Jewel" to discourage any attachment. But Abby privately has her own names for them, and although she is a horse-lover and an accomplished rider, "Ornery George" is the one horse she just can't bring herself to ride or love. He's one cranky beast, but he's so handsome that the temptation is great to increase his value by making him a horse that "a little girl can ride." There are many ways to train a horse, and Smiley presents several methods in the guise of different characters, from heavy-handed cowboy to restrained horse-whisperer. The training methods represent different kinds of power, which middle-school children, who are observing and testing the authority of parents and teachers, will easily distinguish.

Abby's story expresses all the pains and pleasures of gaining a sense of mastery in a difficult sport, a pure and most exquisite form of independence for a child. For horse enthusiasts, the details of this book will ring true and perfect, but Smiley has such a succinct way of explaining technical things that no one will feel left out. Even if you've never touched a horse before, by the time you've read this book you'll know how to get a Thoroughbred to take his weight on three spindly legs and pick one foot up for you to clean.

"The Georges and the Jewels" can easily take its place on the shelf along with the great horse stories of childhood: "Black Beauty," "The Black Stallion" and Marguerite Henry's books.

Gennifer Choldenko's 2004 novel, " Al Capone Does My Shirts," was such a perfect book, it was hard to imagine a sequel. Set in the world of the families who lived and worked on Alcatraz Island when the notorious prison was functioning, the book introduced Moose Flanagan, his autistic sister Natalie, the irresistible and manipulative daughter of the warden, Piper, and a host of wonderfully drawn characters who made up a tight, insular community. Looming in the minds of Alcatraz residents and readers alike was the larger-than-life figure of Al Capone, the prison's most famous inmate and a surprising ally in Moose's family's search for an appropriate school for Natalie. In the climax of the first book, it appeared that Capone's shadowy power had moved mountains for Moose and left Moose in Capone's debt.

Perhaps the most astonishing accomplishment of "Al Capone Shines My Shoes" (Dial: $16.99, ages 10 and up) is that Choldenko audaciously introduces us to the legendary Al Capone and gives him flesh and spirit of a very human kind. The underlying mystery of the second book is: Who are the real ruffians on Alcatraz -- the prisoners or the guards? Capone's gentlemanly qualities shine against the petty cruelty of his jailers, and seem to cast all the inmates in a more favorable light. Choldenko has not only extended her story in surprising ways, she has also deepened her level of inquiry. How do kids make smart decisions when they start to see the serious faults of the grown-ups around them? Who's trustworthy?

It's not entirely clear to the reader what is going on in Mary E. Pearson's "The Miles Between" ( Henry Holt: $16.99, ages 14 and up), an odd and compelling novel. Is Destiny, our extremely guarded narrator, telling us the whole truth? Is it really just coincidence that she finds an empty car idling on her boarding-school lawn? Did she choose her three companions for a daringly truant road trip ? Are all these revealing conversations and weird coincidences really taking place, or are they imagined, a kind of wish fulfillment? And what about that disturbing explosion the kids seem to have ignored in the background?

Pearson is making a name for herself with novels that blithely cross genre lines in pursuit of an interesting character's story; her previous book, "The Adoration of Jenna Fox," was a medical thriller and science-fiction tale raveled from one teenager's mysterious experience.

What is clear in "The Miles Between" is that Destiny trusts no one. Shunted from boarding school to boarding school by absentee parents and a shadowy guardian figure, she has made a religion of never getting attached. When she finds herself becoming entangled, she has carefully developed strategies for getting herself expelled while maintaining a bead on her actual academic progress.

Without revealing too much, let's say that things are definitely not what they seem in Destiny's world. The most reliable people and the least can easily change roles. And while Destiny is painfully honest with herself about many things, she also has very good reasons for lying -- to herself and others. It's rare that the reveal in such a novel pays off, but Pearson manages a magic trick by melding the fantastic and the prosaic in a character who turns out to be just another teenager trying to forge a path in a world not of her making.

Sonja Bolle's Word Play column appears monthly at latimes.com/books.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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FictionFamilyAl CaponeCrime, Law and JusticeHorse (animal)Jails and PrisonsHenry Holt
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