Books in Brief: The Tiltersmith, The Words We Keep, Solitary Animals | Books


The Tiltersmith by Amy Herrick; Algonquin Young Readers, 320 pages ($17.95) Ages 10 and up.

It should be spring in Brooklyn, but winter shows no sign of letting up in this thrilling coming-of-age fantasy skillfully weaving elements of ancient folklore with the frightening contemporary realities of climate change.

Amy Herrick, a retired teacher who lives in Brooklyn, returns to the world of her excellent 2013 novel “The Time Fetch” and the four friends Edward, Feenix, Danton and Brigit, each with a particular talent that will prove vital to the adventure.

Nerdy Edward, who lives with his guardian, Aunt Kit, is growing mold in baking pans in his room, hoping to find a mold that breaks down plastic. Free-spirited Feenix wears her coat to class and inks tiny drawings on her face to annoy the principal. Thoughtful red-haired Brigit was rendered mute at the death of her infant brother and still has great difficulty speaking in class. Tall, genial Danton radiates “can-do cheerfulness” and has a crush on Brigit.

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On  the day of the spring equinox, Aunt Kit notes that humans have thrown off the world’s delicate balance, declaring: “Spring is a meeting of the Forces That Be and the Matters That Are,” a declaration that causes Edward to observe his aunt is in “high wackadoodle gear.” Science teacher Mr. Ross blames climate change for the late arrival of spring. But the four friends suspect something else may be going on when the school principal disappears, and a strange fellow calling himself Superintendent Tiltersmith takes over, showing an ominous interest in the four friends and some rare objects they have obtained.  

Herrick offers a thrilling tale of ancient forces battling over the future of Earth and four likable protagonists tasked with saving the Earth while dealing with  the emotional realities of adolescence (friendships, a first crush, bullying). Best of all, she seems to suggest a third novel may be coming – eventually.

The Words We Keep by Erin Stewart; Delacorte Press, 400 pages ($18.99). Ages 12 and up.

After her bipolar older sister suffers a breakdown and is hospitalized in a psychiatric facility, anxiety-ridden Lily feels even more pressure to be perfect in this excellent novel exploring the family dynamics of mental illness and the stigma and misunderstandings that prevent people from seeking the treatment and support they need.

The novel unfolds in Lily’s unflinchingly honest voice, as she struggles with what feels like the loss of her sister and her own secret compulsion to self-harm – finding relief in picking at sores that start to bleed.

Alice arrives home a different person from the wild, impulsive sister Lily remembers, but Lily makes a connection with newly arrived classmate Micah, an artist who met Alice at psych rehab and encourages Lily to use her love of words to express herself in a guerrilla poetry project at school. When Alice stops taking her meds and in her manic phase, she encourages Micah and Lily to new heights with the guerrilla poetry project including breaking into the school at night. 

 Stewart (“Scars Like Wings”) offers a realistic portrait of Lily’s lonely battle to be perfect even as her world careens out of control and she loses her grip on academics and her track performance and has a falling-out with her best friend. Stewart also offers an emotional portrayal of the relief Lily experiences in finally giving up her secrets and seeking help. (One fascinating realistic detail is Lily’s flawed memory of exactly what happened in a near-drowning at the beach years before.) The novel at intervals includes Lily’s inventions of words that should exist. For example, “puriderm” is a verb meaning “cleaning oneself from the outside in, knowing that if you can just reach deep enough, you can pluck out all the bad and leave only the good.”

Solitary Animals, Introverts of the Wild by Joshua David Stein, art by  Dominique Ramsey; Penguin Workshop ($18.99).

The panther, the octopus and the sloth are among the solitary animals featured in Joshua David Stein’s fascinating picture book finding poetry in the colorful collective terms for creatures (a parade of elephants, a dazzle of zebras, a fever of stingrays) and the lack of such accepted terms for the solitary panther, octopus and sloth (“What do you call a group of octopuses? A tangle of octopuses? A chandelier of octopuses? A multipus of octopuses?”). The book offers interesting insights into the natural world while at the same time affirming that it’s OK to be an introvert. Dominique Ramsey, a graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design, makes a stunning debut with her spectacular, luminous illustrations.


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