Four new middle-grade novels you've got to check out

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By Sonja Bolle

When the original "Penderwicks" came out in 2005 (it won the National Book Award that year), it might have been a reprint of a lost classic. It's a curiously civilized story of four motherless sisters who are fiercely loyal to one another and to their absent-minded professor father, and whose secret family ritual involves swearing on the Penderwick Family Honor. They appreciate a certain shabbiness in summer rental houses, get into manageable trouble, make interesting enemies and more interesting friends. There's not a mall or a cellphone in sight; indeed, even the illustration motif of the children in silhouette (with Hound, their constant canine companion) recalls an old-fashioned childhood.

Now, in Jeanne Birdsall's "The Penderwicks on Gardam Street" (Alfred A. Knopf: $15.99, ages 9-12), the Penderwicks are back from their first-book summer vacation and ensconced at home on Gardam Street, and we readers who had been hoping for a sequel realize we've been dying to know what their home life is like. But horrors! There is a meddler in the peaceful family circle. Aunt Claire, the father's sister, has decided it is time for the widowed Mr. Penderwick to start dating. One of the most fetching elements of these books is Birdsall's underlying certainty that there is no rush with the important things in life. In the first book, 12-year-old Rosalind's crush on an older teenage boy ends in a way that promises real romance later in life -- when she's ready. Mr. Penderwick, who is decidedly not ready to start dating, finds an inventive way of assuring his sister that he has been spending time in the company of a suitable female, by naming as his love interest Marianne Dashwood. Readers who take pleasure in identifying the many literary references in "The Penderwicks" (beginning with Gardam Street, no doubt an homage to children's writer Jane Gardam) will know instantly that Mr. Pen has been finding a place to cozy up with Jane Austen's "Sense and Sensibility" when he's supposed to be courting. The best response to many a stressful situation in "The Penderwicks," as in life, is to curl up and read a book.

In a recent interview, Birdsall told Publishers Weekly: "The books that appealed to me [when I was a child] were the ones that showed there were ways to create other kinds of families than the one you were born into." Here is the link to that interview, which also includes a list of titles mentioned in the two "Penderwick" books:

* If "The Penderwicks" is one kind of commentary on old-fashioned books, "The Willoughbys" (Houghton Mifflin/Walter Lorraine Books: $16, ages 9-12) is another sort altogether: a novel that parodies old-fashioned children's books. Even longtime fans of Lois Lowry ("The Giver") may be surprised to discover she has a wicked sense of humor and a talent for playful illustration. "The Willoughbys" includes a list of literary classics in which the main characters are orphaned. But who needs a deep knowledge of children's literature to appreciate a parody of plucky orphans? Even little kids raised only on Disney movies grasp that there's something too easy about the way storytellers kill off parents. Lowry's parody will recall Lemony Snicket's "A Series of Unfortunate Events," though it has more soul.

Are there plucky orphans? In a manner of speaking. There are four Willoughby children. Their parents call Tim, the eldest, "insufferable." The twins have only one name (and one sweater) between them, because who can tell the difference? They are Barnaby A and Barnaby B, A and B for short. As for the girl, Jane, let's just say that when a nanny arrives (what's a classic children's novel without a no-nonsense nanny?), she's surprised to discover there are four children instead of three; the parents forgot to mention Jane. The children, for their part, conclude that, all things considered, they'd be better off as orphans, so they set about luring their parents into an exotic vacation involving kayaking in crocodile-infested waters and helicoptering over erupting volcanoes. The parents, finding colorful travel brochures strewn about the house, take the bait, and off they go, leaving their children behind and instructing an agent to put the house up for sale.

"So," Tim muses, "while we're getting rid of them, they're getting rid of us."

"Complicated," says Barnaby A.

"Diabolical," says Barnaby B.

"Scary," says Jane.

"Despicable," says Tim.

Alluring adjectives are one of the joys of this book, which offers a hilariously tongue-in-cheek -- though always informative -- glossary, containing such words as "odious" and "lugubrious." A benefactor with a winsome ward (more stock characters from the classics) figure in the wrap-up. "Oh, what is there to say at the happy conclusion of an old-fashioned story?" Lowry asks. To which this happy reader can only respond: Thanks for the tickling.

* The first sentence of "The Underneath" (Atheneum/Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing: $16.99, ages 9-12), though trumpeted by the promotional material, is almost a deal-breaker: "There is nothing lonelier than a cat who has been loved, at least for a while, and then abandoned on the side of the road." But something draws the discerning reader on. For me, it was the fact that, though I loathe saccharine pet stories, I have a childhood memory of loving the animal characters of Sheila Burnford's "The Incredible Journey." In "The Underneath," there's something compelling about Kathi Appelt's nonhuman view of the world. And then, a few sentences on, her language will get you. She has a sure voice as a storyteller, rolling back and forth between a past tense, which tells what just happened a moment ago -- a small cat heard a dog howl, and recognized in it the voice of the blues -- and a grand present tense, which is the story of the bayou country, the story the stately pine trees have seen unfolding for centuries, the story in which something that happened just a moment ago may be totally unimportant or may change the world.

Picture-book author Appelt stretches out luxuriously in her first novel, spinning poetic threads of different sorts from Southern gothic tradition, Native American legend and world mythology and weaving them together to tell an extraordinary tale of epic scope, in which a chapter can credibly begin, "A thousand years later. . . . "

* And don't forget: "The Battle of the Labyrinth," Book 4 in the "Percy Jackson and the Olympians" series by Rick Riordan (Hyperion Books for Children, $17.99, ages 9-12), will be published this week. The final showdown between the Titans and Olympian gods is approaching -- next year's book will be the final volume in the series -- and things are not looking good for Percy and his fellow half-bloods, children of gods and mortals. Luke's defection to the camp of the Titan lord, Kronos, and the prophecy upon which the outcome of the battle seems to hang are as mysterious as ever. And won't Percy ever learn to stop insulting the gods when he loses his temper?

Sonja Bolle's Word Play column appears monthly at