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4 kids' books that push boundaries, smartly

"Heap House: Iremonger Book 1" by Edward Carey (Overlook, October 2014). Credit: Overlook

A writer has to be very good indeed to go to extremes. The four books reviewed here have in common a recklessness that can overwhelm the reader; they are not for the faint of heart. As with any well executed piece of art, though, the style of each tale is perfectly suited to its purpose.

"Weird" doesn't begin to describe "Heap House" (Overlook Press, $16.99, ages 10 and older). The world of the Iremonger family is unsettling, disorienting, disturbing. Clod Iremonger lives in a bizarre house surrounded by cousins -- hordes of them -- whose immense wealth was procured by picking through the garbage of London. The Iremongers, who all bear absurd names (Tummis, Umbitt, Moorcus, etc.), are each paired at birth with an object that must remain on his or her person at all times. Clod has the odd talent -- or is it an illness? -- of hearing these "birth objects" speak. His own birth object, a bath plug, shyly mumbles its name: "James Henry Hayward." On the subject of names, it must be noted that the name of the author and illustrator, Edward Carey, is only two letters removed from that of Edward Gorey, whose illustrations would surely acknowledge Carey's as close relatives.

"Heap House" is the first volume in a projected Iremonger Trilogy, and its cliffhanger ending is perfectly maddening. It's cruel, really, of the publisher to release just one.

Novels for young adults are not known for their emotional restraint. Even so, Jandy Nelson's "I'll Give You the Sun" (Dial, $17.99, ages 14 and older) gives the word "intense" new meaning. All kinds of passions careen through this story of gifted twins and their art-school ambitions: straight, gay, marital and illicit love; love for a sibling, a parent, a ghost; love of color, of clay, of danger. The actual love scenes don't hold a candle to the scenes of longing, and those don't approach the sheer abandon of one scene of doughnut-eating.

Noah, who alternates as narrator with his twin sister, Jude, laments, "How can love be such a wrecking ball?" His observation holds the key to all this violent emotion: People build up walls to protect themselves from pain, but the only way to experience life is to knock the walls down, exposing oneself to more pain. "I'll Give You the Sun" is a novel that makes you want to go out and skydive, but if you can read a novel like this now and then, you don't need to.

Gregory Maguire's novels have never lacked for audacity. He has entered the worldview of the Wicked Witch of the West ("Wicked") and elaborated an entire novel from the slender myth of the tooth fairy ("What-the-Dickens"). Now, taking on the rich tradition of Russian folk tales, he has allowed himself even greater extravagance in "Egg & Spoon" (Candlewick Press, $17.99, ages 12 and older).

There is magic -- cats talk, witches behave witchily -- yet the most extraordinary things are brought about by ordinary coincidence and accident. A princess and a peasant switch places by losing their balance aboard a lurching train. In a forest clearing, a girl stumbles across the legendary firebird, who grants a wish to anyone who can pluck its tail feather, but an escaped chicken ruins the moment. Somehow, Maguire transforms the wildness of his story into a commentary on the chaos and injustice of our own world -- a sort of folkloric news of the day.

B.J. Novak, standup comic and television personality (his credits are all over "The Office"), has written a book for younger children that pushes boundaries and challenges readers in only 48 pages. It's far from a traditional picture book; in fact, it's called "The Book With No Pictures" (Dial, $17.99, ages 3-8), henceforth "TBWNP." Looking meek and innocently lap-size, "TBWNP" vividly demonstrates that the grown-up who reads a book out loud to children is entirely at the mercy of the text.

"Here is how books work," Novak writes, the words standing starkly on an otherwise empty page. "Everything the words say, the person reading the book has to say." Then he proceeds to write the craziest stuff. "Blork," the hapless grown-up must enunciate. "Wait -- what? That doesn't even mean anything." And so the book proceeds, naturally not overlooking the fact that, for a 5-year-old, the funniest word in the English language is "butt." The beleaguered reader must utter all of it, because, as the book so helpfully points out: "That's the deal. That's the rule."

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