Boys of Blur, by N.D. Wilson (Random House, upper middle grade/younger YA, April 2014)
Charlie has come to the Florida sugar cane country for the funeral of his step-dad's foster father, football coach and mentor of generations of boys in a small town up against swampland. There he meets Cotton, a second step-cousin his own age, who takes him exploring off the edge of town...and what they find there is the start of a battle against darkness. For off in the swamp a dark, twisted mother is making the town's dead into zombie children. And Charlie and Cotton are caught in an age old struggle between good and evil that they can't outrun. Not matter how fast they are....
To my surprise and pleasure, it turned out that I was reading a Beowulf reimagining! Grendel is played by the zombies, Grendel's mother is of course the mother down in the swamp, and Charlie is forced into the role of the hero! Very cool.* I don't think you have to know Beowulf to make sense of things, but it sure added a lot to my own reading pleasure.
But it's more than just a retelling. It's also a story about family and coming to terms with the past. Charlie's biological father, who ended up abusing him and his mother, is out of prison, and back in this same small town (he was a football player in sugar cane country too). And it's a story with lots of football--Charlie's step-dad made it to the big leagues, and so is a returning hero, and just about all the boys in town are football crazy (note--in general, I have no desire to read about football, but I thought it added lots to this particular story).
It's not a story about race, but is a story in which some of the characters (like Charlie's step-dad) are black and some are white, and this is the way things are, and there are tensions but this is not the point.
It's also just a flat out good story. The sense of place is really, really strong-you can almost feel the slash of the sugar cane on your face, and smell the dark stinking mud-- and it's a place that clearly has deep (and dark) history (a history in which the Native people are a key part, though they are not here in this place at the time of the telling). Exploring this place, and learning its story, is what sets things in motion.
And Charlie and all the other extended cast of characters are great. Charlie's step-dad is awesome, Cotton (forced to a high level of erudition by his home-schooling mama) is awesome, and Charlie himself is a character you can root for with conviction.
And on top of that, the whole story manages to fit inside 195 tight and succinct pages, without loosing any umph. This friendly brevity, and all the football in the book, makes it a good one to offer the kid who likes Chris Crutcher...and who might be ready for a dark supernatural twist alongside the athletics! It might also be a good one for fans of horror for kids who are now somewhat older. Here is my idea of a the perfect reader-- the smart seventh through ninth grade ex-Goosebumps reader who plays football and who knows who Beowulf is.
Which is of course not exactly me, but I was also a good reader for it all the same, and enjoyed it lots. It wasn't too icky, though it was scary (don't give this to a younger kid who gets scared) and tense and a panther dies (sad). There was never once so much non-stop unbroken action that I started skimming, and I loved the Beowulf references.
*A small pedantic note: I hope future editions change "Welcome to my heriot" on page 118 to "Welcome to my Heorot"-- the first is a death-duty, the second the great hall in Beowulf. Or even take it out altogether, as it calls for higher level Beowulfian knowledge than most of the target audience will have. Which leads to my one issue with the book--it would have been good if there had been more introduction to that story, because if you don't know it, you might find the references to things like Grendel's arm pretty meaningless.