Published 12/09/12 in the Minneapolis Star Tribune

“The Norwegians’ intelligence is a little slow, and they are suspicious of foreigners; therefore the benevolent German must not lose his temper but must take matters calmly…It is better to explain things to them in a simple, matter-of-fact way, or, still better, to adopt a playful tone.”

Period details, like these real-life instructions given to German soldiers serving in Norway, bring the brutality of the Nazi occupation very vividly to life in Duluth writer Margi Preus’ new historical novel Shadow on the Mountain.  They also help explain how 14-year-old Espen rises so naturally up the ranks of the Norwegian resistance movement. With a dim-bulb look that keeps soldiers from being too curious about the contents of his rucksack, a compatriot encourages him to keep “looking stupid. That should work splendidly for you.”

Preus, whose Heart of a Samurai was a Newbery Honor Book, based her protagonist on a real-life spy named Erling Storrusten, and uses historic events such as the Quisling government’s 1942 ban on red hats and the arrest of 1,100 Norwegian teachers to drive home the growing divide between Espen and soccer teammates more sympathetic to the new regime. As Espen’s responsibilities escalate, from delivering underground newspapers, to spying inside the German’s compound, Preus’ deeply researched historic novel never loses sight of the timeless fun of out-running the bad guys.

Fitz by Mick Cochrane

Growing up without a dad, 15-year-old Fitzgerald is overdue for some quality father-son time. And now that he’s discovered his child support checks are coming from an address across the river, he’s determined to get some—at gunpoint, if necessary.

Though the latest young adult novel from Mick Cochrane (a St. Paul native and University of St. Thomas grad) has a few moments of hair-trigger suspense, the slow burn of Fitz’s yearning to know and be known by his father gives this coming-of-age novel its most affecting moments. “Sometimes Fitz would look at himself in the mirror, an expression of pathetic eagerness on his face. He was a dog in the pound, wanting to be adopted. He’d smile. What father wouldn’t want this boy?

Kidnapping his dad before the start of business, father and son spend an uneasy day driving around Saint Paul together, exploring the decisions that led to his father’s disappearance from his life. Though the answers don’t always satisfy, teen readers will enjoy the dysfunctional family roadtrip Fitz takes on some familiar streets, from St. Paul’s Summit Avenue to Como Zoo’s seal island.

Keeping Safe the Stars by Sheila O’Connor

Fourteen-year-old orphan Kathleen “Pride” Star is resourceful and self-reliant—maybe to a fault. When her grandfather Old Finn goes to the hospital with a fever, stranding her, sister Nightingale and brother Baby at a cabin in rural Minnesota, she’ll tell any lie she has to keep helpful neighbors, inquisitive adults and county social workers off her property. “Old Finn didn’t believe in charity. He told us taking always ended up as owing, that people gave to get, that in the end, there wasn’t a lender you could trust,” says Pride, who hatches a plan to sell pony rides and popcorn, scraping together the money the Stars need to make it to Old Finn’s hospital bed in Duluth.

Fans of O’Connor’s finely written “Sparrow Road” will find even more to admire in this warm-hearted novel, which sets Pride’s ever spinning lies against President Richard Nixon’s impending resignation. With references that range from Duluth to Paul Bunyanland, Minnesota readers may also notice something familiar about these stoic northwoods types–very quick to offer help to their neighbors, but very slow to ask for it.

Iron-Hearted Violet by Kelly Barnhill

Thirteen-year-old Princess Violet is another heroine with a gift for telling tales—especially after she and her friend Demetrius uncover the forbidden story of a banished God named the Nybbas. Though this fairy-tale fantasy is narrated by a court storyteller, Minneapolis writer Kelly Barnhill has fun challenging some of the conventions of the genre. Our heroine, for instance, is no enchanting Cinderella-type, and for a time, she may even prove to be the villain.

The Vengekeep Prophecies by Brian Farrey

“Truth is a poison of last resort,” according to the par-Goblin proverbs, so don’t expect any member of the thieving Grimjinx clan to come clean about their latest con—a strange tapestry that prophecies they’ll be the saviors of the village of Vengekeep, where they are known to be frequent guests in the town gaol. In this light-hearted and free-wheeling fantasy, St. Paul writer Brian Farrey has invented a funny and absorbing alternative universe where “Zoc!” is an epithet, “singemeat” is always on the menu, and a story spun in “fateskein” can’t help but come true. Fortunately, the error-prone but enterprising Jaxter Grimjinx and his accomplice Callie Strom are brave enough to try in this first in trilogy perfect for middle grade readers.


–Laura Billings Coleman is a writer in Saint Paul.

Books reviewed:

Shadow on the Mountain by Margi Preus (Amulet Books, ages 10-14, $16.95)

Fitz by Mick Cochrane, (Knopf Books for Young Readers, ages 12 and up, $16.99)

Keeping Safe the Stars by Sheila O’Connor (Putnam Juvenile, ages 10 and up, $16.99)

Iron Hearted Violet by Kelly Barnhill (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, ages 8-12, $16.99)

The Vengekeep Prophecies by Brian Farrey, with illustrations by Brett Helquist (HarperCollins, ages 8-12, $16.99)




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