Editor’s Note: Looking for that special read to give a child or teen for the holidays? Consider these four new (or newish) books, written by Mainers. 

Courtesy of Simon & Schuster

“Rick the Rock of Room 214”
By Julie Falatko; illustrated by Ruth Chan
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, August 2022
40 pages
Ages 4-8
$18.99

Imagine being Ruth Chan and being asked to illustrate a new picture book whose main character is a rock. I can’t. But she clearly could. The result, Rick the Rock of Room 214, does the seemingly impossible: It makes a rock a fun and relatable creature. Rick escapes from the boredom of being stuck on the “nature finds” shelf of his elementary schoolroom to search for adventure in the great outdoors. The message of this story by Julie Falatko (who lives outside Portland) is not terribly original – East, West, home’s best – but its whimsical humor is well served by Chan’s comics-style illustrations of the science-obsessed classroom (particularly one little girl who’s a rock hound). Chan’s own sly wordplay adds another layer of fun (text books or T-shirts emblazoned Power to the Pebble, Hard Rock Life, or Rocks Rock). All these elements combine to make it a sweet, rock-solid, if not exactly groundbreaking (forgive the puns) work.

Courtesy of Lucky Platt

“Imagine a Wolf”
By Lucky Platt
Page Street Kids, 2021
40 pages
Ages 4-8
$18.99

“Close your eyes and imagine a wolf,” is how this picture book begins. The page is dark and menacing. Turn it, however, and you get a sweet if exasperated grandmotherly wolf, in apron and espadrille wedges, knitting someone an ugly sweater out of bright, bulky yarn. “Am I what you imagined?” she asks.

No, of course not. You imagined someone with big eyes, big teeth, big ears. A stalking, terrifying wolf. In a clever spoof of the fairytale stereotypes, this book asks you to imagine a wolf who uses her teeth to help spin wool, her eyes to revel in the colors of the yarn, her ears to help hear sheep shivering with cold. And her heart (what a big heart she has!) to knit them sweaters. All while enduring the knee-jerk reactions of those around her who peg her for a big baddie: “Everywhere I go,” she sighs, “no matter what I do, or how much I try to fit in, there’s always someone who cries WOLF!” This enchanting and delightfully illustrated debut book from Burnham resident Lucky Pratt can be enjoyed as a visual and imaginative delight on its own. Or as a parable for our times about not judging people who look different from us.

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Courtesy of Kathryn Williams

“The Storyteller”
By Kathryn Williams
Harper/Teen, January, 2022
368 pages
$21.99

Imagine creating a different persona for yourself.

“Lying to ourselves is more deeply ingrained than lying to others.” “To call a story a true story is an insult to both art and truth.” These epigraphs (from Russian greats Dostoevsky and Nabokov) tell you right upfront what “The Storyteller” will be about. In this tale within a tale, Kathryn Williams ingeniously uses a 17-year-old girl’s quest to unravel the mystery of her great aunt’s true identity to weave two parallel stories, nesting inside each other like Russian nesting dolls. Both stories focus on the need to dissemble, to create alternate realities that disguise our true selves, and the way we use storytelling to do that.

Jess tells us right off the bat that she’s “an impostor” – trying to attract and impress a cool boy from school, at the cost of alienating her best friend. She is also a writer, and she perhaps rationalizes this charade because of that: “It’s surprisingly easy to pretend to be someone you’re not. Writers do it all the time … we’re all made up of stories, the ones we tell ourselves, and the ones we tell each other.”

Her late, Russian-born great-aunt Anna was also an admitted storyteller, and when Jess finds her diaries, she becomes fascinated by the possibility that her great-aunt was actually Anastasia, the Czar’s daughter who was rumored to have escaped assassination by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution, and around whom speculation whirled for decades. Could Anastasia have survived? And escaped Russia? Could she be…Aunt Anna? Jess enlists a cute and endearingly dorky college boy to help her translate the diaries from Russian and solve the mystery, and this is when the second story emerges: Aunt Anna’s.

Kudos are due to Williams for managing to bring the history of the Revolution into full and richly imagined life. The voluminous diaries start when the princess is 12 – a carefree child living a privileged life with Papa and Mama (Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra): sledding, eating bilberry jam, watching the soldiers parade. They continue as she is imprisoned in the palace, watches her family be brutally murdered, flees the country and makes her way through Europe and eventually to the U.S. Along the way, the voice matures and changes, and we see her grow to adulthood.

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Williams (who lives in Portland and teaches, appropriately, at the Telling Room) manages to pull readers completely into this new world in a masterful way. Though the material in the diaries is historically accurate and meticulously researched, there’s never a whiff of “here’s a fact-filled history lesson that’ll be good for you” or (even harder to resist) “look how much research I did here!”

Increasing the tension behind the question of whether the diaries are real or “storytelling” is the sudden discovery of remains in Russia that might be able to prove (or disprove) their Anastasia theory. We are kept hanging until the very end.

Jess, of course, has to come to terms with her own need to be someone she’s not, her own need for storytelling. Although you could fault Williams for being heavy-handed about her theme here, she lets Jess find her peace in a way that is both satisfying and believable. “Fact becomes Truth becomes fiction,” she asserts; “it’s only in the telling that we finally understand.” This is a wonderful book for any age.

Courtesy of Diane Magras

“Secret of the Shadow Beasts”
By Diane Magras
Dial Books, June, 2022
335 pages
$17.99
Grades 8-12

Since the success of her debut book, a middle grade fantasy called “The Mad Wolf’s Daughter,” Mount Desert Island native Diane Magras has made a specialty of the Spunky Girl-Warrior. “Mad Wolf,” and its sequel, featured a girl raised in a family of boys who longs to wield a sword alongside the best of them. Now comes a slightly more contemporary version.

Like the earlier stories, “Secret of the Shadow Beasts” has castles and knights and swords, but it also has cars and Wi-Fi and video gaming, a juxtaposition that often feels uncomfortable. It also has a much more contemporary feel because it is largely about feelings. Yes, they must slay horrid Beasts, but 12-year old Nora and her fellow Order of the Hawk knights (Murdo, Cyril, Amar, Eve and Tove) exchange hugs on just about every page (after asking permission first). They also thoughtfully share their pronouns and tend to say sincere things to each other that only a licensed therapist would ever utter. “That must have made you feel so alone.” “Thanks for sharing that.”

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That said, these sensitive young fighters meld themselves into a fearsome fighting unit on a quest that is straight out of a video game. Nora’s passion is gaming, and – armed now with a real-life battle axe – that experience stands her in good stead. “The Shadow Beasts,” which threaten to wipe out humanity, are unleashed at dusk. Their bites are fatal to an adult, but Hawk warriors have immunity. Four bites from a Beast and they lose their immunity. Three bites means they can’t rise to the next level of knighthood. The Beasts can only be stopped from multiplying by three strikes of a special hammer. It feels very much like the set-up of a video game, with Hawks slashing their way through swarm after swarm of the enemy. There’s a problem with video-game style fighting though: It may be thrilling on a screen but that rarely translates to the page.

There are other contemporary notes. In a wry (perhaps unintended) allusion to COVID deniers, villagers who don’t believe in the Shadow Beasts ignore warnings to stay indoors and expose all of them to attacks that nearly kill one knight. “Twits,” mutters Cyril. “Do we really have to save them?” (Answer: yes. Because you’re nice.)

The overwhelming niceness is relieved by occasional bouts of snarkiness and humor. Nora, for example, while desperately fighting off gigantic slug-, spider- or wolf-like beasts, is apt to scold them: “A single Lupus Umbra, big as a small cow, bolted for Murdo. ‘Bad dog!’ screamed Nora, rushing after it.”

It’s not nearly the book “Mad Wolf’s Daughter” was, but if you are into gaming, or looking for an action-packed story brimming over with good feeling, you’ll enjoy it.

Amy MacDonald is a freelance writer and children’s author. She may be reached at [email protected]


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