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Tales with tails

Who wouldn’t want a giant, invisible, jelly bean–eating cat as a best friend? In the following imaginative middle-grade animal fantasy stories, creatures interact with humans in unusual ways, or they are the stars of their own shows.

applegate_crenshawFifth-grader Jackson, protagonist of Katherine Applegate’s Crenshaw, is the one scientifically minded member of his dreamy family, which is why having an imaginary friend — a giant, invisible, jelly bean–eating cat no less — seems preposterous. Now with the family facing a return to homelessness, the cat, Crenshaw, who hadn’t been around in years, reappears to help Jackson cope. Applegate’s tone is warm and sometimes quirkily funny, but she doesn’t sugarcoat the effects of hunger and vulnerability. This novel adds a middle-grade perspective to the literature of imaginary friends and paints a convincing and compassionate portrait of the working poor. (Feiwel, 8–11 years)

sloan_appleblossomThe possum stars of Holly Goldberg Sloan’s Appleblossom the Possum have theater in their blood. (Mama Possum’s note to young Appleblossom: “Your tail looks believable. But you need to feel more like a snake in your body. Move from the inside.”) When Appleblossom finds herself trapped in a “monster” house (that is, one containing humans and dogs), her mama, two of her brothers, their newly rediscovered father — and Appleblossom’s own acting abilities — come to her rescue. This engaging animal-fantasy adventure has a wise and witty sensibility, reinforced by Gary A. Rosen’s pencil and wash illustrations in soft black and white with occasional touches of pink. (Dial, 6–9 years)

mcghee_firefly hollowVole longs to sail down the river to rejoin family and friends lost in a flood years before; Firefly dreams of flying to the moon; and baseball-loving Cricket yearns to be the best catcher since Yogi Berra. In Firefly Hollow, Alison McGhee’s affectionate third-person narration follows each friend’s preparations for his or her quest. And when the time comes, Firefly does indeed shoot for the stars, Cricket makes the big catch, and Vole realizes he has not lost everything after all. Aided by Christopher Denise’s full-color illustrations, McGhee has ably created a believable animal world where any creature’s dreams can come true. (Atheneum, 6–9 years)

avi_old-wolfIn Old Wolf, aging wolf Nashoba struggles to find fresh game for his pack and to hold onto his alpha status. In a parallel story, a boy named Casey also dreams of kills — in the video game he plays incessantly. Casey’s appetite for real-world hunting is whetted when he receives a bow-and-arrow set for his birthday. Author Avi switches perspective between Nashoba and Casey, whose stories eventually come into direct contact. Naturalistic black-and-white pencil illustrations by Brian Floca enhance the classic-feeling tale. (Atheneum/Jackson, 9–12 years)

From the September 2015 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Shoshana Flax About Shoshana Flax

Shoshana Flax, assistant editor for The Horn Book, Inc., is a former bookseller and holds an MFA in Writing for Children from Simmons College. She is a member of the Sydney Taylor Book Award committee.

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