Young Readers: Lessons on mending fences, righting wrongs

May’s roundup features reviews of “Rita and Ralph’s Rotten Day,” by Carmen Agra Deedy; “Mother Jones and Her Army of Mill Children,” by Jonah Winter; “Clean Getaway,“ by Nic Stone; and “By the Book: A Novel of Prose and Cons,” by Amanda Sellet.

“Rita and Ralph’s Rotten Day”

By Carmen Agra Deedy, illustrations by Pete Oswald. Scholastic. Ages 3-6. $17.99.

Solving conflicts between friends can be hard at any age. Rita and Ralph, the two young friends in this charming picture book, live in small fairy-tale-like houses on two little hills. Every morning they run, per the story’s refrain, “down the hill, and up the hill, and down the hill, and up the hill” to meet halfway at an apple tree. One day when they try a new game called “Sticks and Stones,” Ralph’s stone accidentally hits Rita. With her head and feelings hurt, she flees to her home, while Ralph, embarrassed, runs to his. When Ralph begrudgingly apologizes, Rita refuses it. Then her attempt to make amends also goes wrong. But after a sleepless night, a new day brings them back together, both sorry and ready to move on. Concise writing and childlike illustrations combine to tell a gentle, universal story.

“Mother Jones and Her Army of Mill Children”

By Jonah Winter, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter. Schwartz & Wade. Ages 7-10. $17.99.

“No matter what your fight, don’t be ladylike,” advised labor activist Mother Jones, known in her day as the most dangerous woman in America. This Irish immigrant, who serves as the book’s narrator, took up the cause of overworked, underpaid coal miners and factory workers. Child labor especially broke her heart: “I’ve seen lots of things to get RILED UP about, but the worst thing I ever saw was in the fabric mills of Philadelphia,” where 9-year-olds stood and worked 10 hours straight. With the situation ignored by newspapers, Mother Jones relied on drama to grab the public’s attention. She led a 1903 children’s march from Philadelphia to New York City, which raised awareness and helped change laws, if slowly. With fitting retro watercolors, this excellent nonfiction picture book may inspire young activists to speak out in the future against injustice.

“Clean Getaway”

By Nic Stone. Crown. Ages 10-13. $16.99.

What if your favorite grandmother swung by in her van one day and invited you on a road trip, one you knew your father wouldn’t allow? Eleven-year-old Scoob’s been grounded for spring break, but he jumps onboard anyway. G’ma, who’s in her 80s, may be small, but she’s a spitfire, and Scoob loves being with her. They set off across the South with G’ma at the wheel and Scoob consulting maps in an old copy of the Negro Travelers’ Green Book that G’ma and Scoob’s grandfather, now dead, used when they were first married. Soon Scoob starts suspecting this whirlwind trip through his grandparents’ past has some problematic aspects, possibly related to an old crime. The fact that Scoob is biracial with dark skin and G’ma is white also complicates things, judging from some people’s reaction to them. An entertaining read, light-hearted and serious by turns.

“By the Book: A Novel of Prose and Cons”

By Amanda Sellet. Houghton. Ages 13 up. $17.99.

For teen and adult fans of classic novels (or the movies based on them) by writers such as Jane Austen and the Brontes, or for any well-read person who appreciates smart and humorous novels, “By the Book” will offer sheer pleasure. Narrator Mary Porter-Malcolm, named by her two English professor parents for a Virginia Woolf character, transfers for her sophomore year to a much bigger school. Although she reassures herself in her diary that it won’t be as bad as Jane Eyre’s boarding school, she’s immediately dumped by her one friend. Things look up when three popular girls befriend her, intrigued by Mary’s knowledge of romance — and especially scoundrels — from novels. (The book has a witty “Scoundrel Survival Guide” at the back.) But Mary’s literary advice unintentionally leads her new friends and her own heart astray in scenes with laugh-out-loud humor. Funny, literate, and a top-notch distraction in these tough times.

— Kathleen Odean, who lives in North Kingstown, is the author of “Great Books for Babies and Toddlers.”

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