James McMullan's beautiful illustrated memoir, "Leaving China: An Artist Paints His World War II Childhood" (Algonquin Books, $19.95, ages 12 and older), makes me wonder if autobiography is an under-mined vein of literature for young readers. Fictional characters may reflect on their lives, but the focus tends to be on story. McMullan considers the formation of his own character, and this makes his tale immediate and personal, even when he is writing of experiences lived long ago and far away.
McMullan was always a dreamy child, more comfortable copying Chinese scrolls than doing sports, and fearful of disappointing his larger-than-life father. He grew up to be a successful illustrator (and creator, with his wife, Kate McMullan, of irresistible children's books: "I Stink!" "I'm Fast!" "I'm Dirty!"), and now lives in Sag Harbor. Born into a missionary family in Cheefoo, China -- but a branch that had gone into business and become wealthy -- the little boy saw plenty of strain in his parents' lives even before the Japanese invasion and the family's rude expulsion from their privileged expatriate life. His memories are rich with detail: Mandarin nicknames, the shouting of conquering Japanese troops on parade, the exotic cleanliness of a cousin's American home, boarding school pranks carried out in the shadow of the Himalayas.
McMullan's introspective nature, and how he learned to protect and trust it during stints at far-flung ports and boarding schools, makes for a compelling narrative. Surely his memories of the tumultuous experiences that formed him as an artist will inspire others who feel similarly jostled by the circumstances of their lives.
Aaron Starmer's novel "The Riverman" (Farrar Straus Giroux, $15.99, ages 10-14), also involves the power that lies in telling one's story. Alistair Cleary is an entirely trustworthy seventh-grader; whereas Fiona Lewis is the kind of girl who "only spoke when called upon and always sighed her way through answers as if school were the ultimate inconvenience." When Fiona brings Alistair an audiotape that begins, "You have been chosen, Alistair, out of many fine and distinguished candidates, to pen my biography," he's hooked.
The story she tells him about her travels to the alternate world of Aquavania is a captivating fantasy. But as successive chapters veer from innocence to darkness -- a threatening figure called The Riverman is stalking the children of Aquavania -- Alistair isn't sure where she is leading him. Fiona's tale is so disturbing and outlandish, her fear so palpable, and the uncle who lives with her family so evidently creepy, that Alistair wonders if she is trying to send him a coded message. "If this was a cry for help," Alistair thinks, "it was an astoundingly complex one."
Starmer weaves his fictional cloth out of gritty realism (there is a great dare scene) and sparkly fantasy, holding the whole together with lovely, careful language. Readers react the way Alistair does to Fiona's story, the way we might all hope to attend to one another: "I let her get it out. I didn't question the details. I tried to remember them. I didn't call her a liar. I listened."
Gae Polisner's novel "The Summer of Letting Go" (Algonquin Books, $16.95, ages 12 and older) also concerns fantasy and reality, and suggests that every life must balance the two, every day. Francesca Schnell, almost 16, is facing a wretched summer. She can't shake the guilt of being the one in charge when her little brother, Simon, drowned in the ocean four years ago. She is surrounded by things she can't understand (is her father having an affair with the neighbor?), things she can't have (her best friend's boyfriend) and things she can't explain (only reincarnation could account for the similarities between Simon and Frankie Sky, the little boy she baby-sits).
All the parts of Francesca's life seem to have a real side, with real weight and consequences, and a side that depends only on what she believes. Does her mother's foundation to prevent drowning actually help anyone, or is it a fantasy her mother clings to? What is more real: Frankie Sky's heart condition, or his belief that he can fly? Is the hot boy flirting with her? Part of her knows she should read only the scientific facts contained in his text messages, but part of her wants to read romance in them.
Polisner's delicate handling of such questions raises this novel above the pack of young-adult novels that deal with loss.