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What’s a girl to do when she’s finished with Nancy Drew but too innocent for the glamour and drama of the Gossip Girls? Recently, a few female authors have emerged with books that feature girls who face real-life problems. These girls are not always polite or well-behaved. They are never beauty queens. They are down-to-earth characters, written to support young people who are living through their own coming-of-age stories.

Shannon Hale writes for children ages 9-12. Hale gained the national spotlight in 2003 when her novel The Princess Academy (Bloomsbury) won a Newberry Honor, but it is her Bayern series that hooks most of her readers. She creates mythical worlds for her characters, and even though most of her main characters are girls, every novel has enough magic, intrigue, deception, and war to keep both male and female readers interested. Hale’s female characters are clever, resourceful, independent, and brave.

Jacqueline Woodson writes for kids in middle school and for young adults. Attempting to give a voice to the voiceless, Woodson writes about characters who feel out of place in society. Readers will root for them as they struggle against mainstream norms and expectations. Woodson often portrays African American girls who live in urban environments—characters who were missing from the pages of the books that she read as a child.

Laurie Halse Anderson writes for teenagers. Beware: somewhere between the juvenile section and the young adult section in the library, female characters become sexual beings, and Anderson does not skirt around the issue. Her novels are often darker and center on issues that face girls today, such as rape, anorexia, and loneliness. Anderson offers no trace of the fairy-tale world, but her characters are strong and funny and capable of grace.

Hale, Woodson, and Anderson attempt to restore balance to the ratio of strong girls to boys who are featured in juvenile literature. They do so with a skill and humor that lends dignity to their characters and their readers.

The Color of Lightning

by Paulette Jiles
reviewed by Jim Romahn

North America’s native people were often described in the past as “noble savages.” This novel, based on a true story, portrays 19th-century Native Americans as both noble and savage. Some of the story is told via Samuel Hammond, a peace-loving man who was sent by the Quakers of Pennsylvania to serve as an “Indian agent.” The other voice is Britt Johnson, a black man who risks his life to free his wife and children after they’re captured by Native Americans. (HarperCollins)

Half the Sky

by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
reviewed by Meg Jenista

If you are looking for a “nice” read, keep moving. If you are ready to be infuriated, to experience moral conviction and social empowerment, the vivid stories, haunting statistics, and photographed smiles in this Pulitzer Prize-winner are intended for you. Rightly called a “manifesto,” this book is intended to channel the social pressure of Western indignation, “turning oppression into opportunity for women worldwide.” Perfect for book clubs and church groups. You won’t be finished with this book until you’ve gotten involved. (Knopf)

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

by Rebecca Skloot
reviewed by Robert N. Hosack

Henrietta Lacks was an African American woman whose cancerous cells, taken without her knowledge, were the first to grow in culture, becoming “immortal.” Known as HeLa cells, they gave scientists a building block for countless breakthroughs. This saga, set against racism and crippling poverty, tells one family’s tale of the human consequences of scientific discovery. It’s a meditation on medical ethics, the notion of informed consent, and the issue of who owns human cells. You won’t be able to put it down. (Crown)

World Gone Beautiful

by Linda Buturian
reviewed by Phil Christman Jr.

Fidelity—to friends, lovers, place, God—is almost as hard to write well about as it is to do. The Midwest has more than its share of the few writers who can pull the trick off, from Kathleen Norris to Larry Woiwode to Debbie Blue, and Linda Buturian (Blue’s neighbor) slots easily into that list with this instantly engaging, cumulatively powerful memoir. Whether she’s writing about the “Cold War” of a marriage or the cold winters of rural Minnesota, her work is as quietly revelatory as a prairie sunset. (Cathedral Hill Press)

The LEGO Book

by Daniel Lipkowitz
reviewed by Otto Selles

Did you know that the company name LEGO™ comes from “LEg GOdt”—the Danish for “Play Well”? That the LEGO block was patented in 1958? This marvelously illustrated book pieces together the history of LEGO and displays the various LEGO product lines. Parents will recognize past LEGO sets, while today’s fans will drool over special collector sets. A second volume, Standing Small, gives a humorous portrayal of the LEGO mini-figure over the past thirty years. Packaged in a box set, this will thrill the LEGO fan of any age in your family. (Dorling Kindersley)

Noah’s Compass

by Anne Tyler
reviewed by Sonya VanderVeen Feddema

Sixty-year-old Liam Pennywell is less concerned about losing his teaching position than he is about losing the memory of the night he was attacked by an intruder. He strategizes about ways to retrieve that memory and enlists the help of a person who can do his remembering for him. Gradually, Liam’s spirit is healed as he retrieves memories, though not the one he had hoped for. Tyler’s insightful exploration of a broken man recovering his compass through restored relationships is humorous, compassionate, and poignant. The book contains some profanity. (Knopf)

Emily’s Ghost

by Denise Giardina
reviewed by Kristy Quist

For all who love Wuthering Heights, and for those who are bewildered by it, Denise Giardina offers a novel based on Emily Brontë’s life. The author brings to life Brontë’s family relationships, the cultural restraints she endured, and her connection to the young clergyman working with her father. Curate William Weightman serves the destitute mill workers in town and resists the societal status quo. Emily’s independence and intelligence attract his interest. Moving, but not sentimental, this novel explores love, faith, and hope. (Norton)

The Postmistress

by Sarah Blake
reviewed by Sonya VanderVeen Feddema

In 1940, Frankie Bard, reporting from the Blitz in London, strives to make her fellow Americans see the harsh reality of the war and take action. Her radio dispatches change the lives of Iris James and Emma Fitch in Franklin, Mass. As Frankie records the stories of refugees fleeing the Nazis, tragedies also evolve in Franklin, eventually weaving the women’s lives together. This novel, which contains profanity and sexually explicit scenes, masterfully deals with the question “How do you bear (in both senses of the word) the news?” (Putnam)

Once Was Lost

by Sara Zarr
reviewed by Sally Bulthuis

As her once-stable family life unravels and the search for a kidnapped local girl goes on, 15-year-old Samara Taylor finds her faith in God shaken to the core. Zarr sensitively portrays a Christian family in crisis: Samara’s mom is in rehab and her dad, the pastor, is more focused on his congregation than on his troubled family. Interwoven themes of loss, doubt, hope, and restoration give teen and adult readers much to ponder and discuss. (Little, Brown)

Crazy Love

by Francis Chan
reviewed by Paul Delger

Francis Chan’s Crazy Love may make the reader uncomfortable. Chan invites Christians to leave their comfort zones and radically show their love for God. Chan contends that many Christians appear like unbelievers (“Something is wrong when our lives make sense to unbelievers”). He encourages people to downsize their lifestyle, give to the poor, and live life now in view of eternity. Crazy Love causes readers to examine the impact of their Christian life in the light of God’s saving grace. (David C. Cook)

Over at the Castle

by Boni Ashburn
reviewed by Sandy Swartzentruber

In this delightful picture book, a mother dragon and her little dragon sit on a hill near a castle, waiting for something, but the little dragon’s getting restless! Meanwhile, life in and around the castle goes on—until the big moment arrives. This counting book’s gentle, rhythmic text makes it a perfect choice for bedtime reading. Imaginatively illustrated in subtle warm colors by Kelly Murphy, it’s great for any little boy or girl who loves dragons, castles, and rhymes. Ages 4-8. (Abrams)

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