Set in 1981, when SoHo still belonged to artists, this novel is a richly textured delight: an art world mystery, a family drama, a sensitive depiction of depression, a crash course in colors and a portrait of a young artist. Ollie’s first-person perspective is so persuasive, it seems she really can manage by herself, until a friend stands beside her and we suddenly see her world through different eyes. Then the stakes get even higher, because this is also a book about the precarious choices young people face when they venture into adulthood. A respite on Fire Island feels like a last chance for Ollie and Alex to simply be children, and the scene is almost elegiac in its beauty, bathed in the light of their deep friendship. Ollie returns home to the realization — terrifying at first — that the Greys cannot remain on Greene Street.
“Draw what you see,” Ollie’s father taught her, “not what you think you see.” It’s an idea that resonates because Tucker has written with such compassion and intelligence about what we see, what we overlook and what we try to hide.
For Theodore Raymond Carter, who grew up in Baltimore, his new life in Brooklyn with his Auntie Lea is “not home.” He doesn’t hang anything on the wall; he can’t bear to look at photos of his parents, whom he recently lost in a car accident. On his first day of school, he even fashions a new name for himself — “T. Ray C.,” or Trace. But the past leaves other traces for him to confront in TRACE (HarperCollins, 320 pp., $16.99; ages 8 to 12), the debut novel by the picture book author and illustrator Pat Cummings. At night he dreams of the river where his parents died; he still can’t figure out how he survived. By day, he begins to see visions of a small boy, disheveled and alone. A group project about the 1860s leads Trace to the New York Public Library, where the boy reappears, tearful and lost, staring at Trace in a ghostly appeal for help.
Trace has troubles enough in the present. His report of the boy in the library lands him in the security office. His only friend, Ty, is mad at him; the “unattainable goddess” Kali is dismissive and rude; and Presley, the youngest girl in class, is driving Trace crazy with her eagerness.
The ghost story at the heart of this book is gentle. The point is not to mystify but to illuminate the ways family abide, as one orphaned boy reaches through history to help another. Cummings has created a large cast, and occasionally Auntie Lea’s friends overwhelm. The book is at its best in private moments, when Presley and Trace must work out their differences or when Auntie Lea explains why she was so angry to find Trace detained.