The White Giraffe by Lauren St. John. (Grades 4-6.)
When 11-year-old Martine's parents are killed in a house fire, she's shipped off to South Africa to live with a grandmother who doesn't seem to want anything to do with her. Unspeakably sad and somewhat of an outcast at school, the only thing Martine can be happy about is the lush African wilderness that surrounds her new game reserve home. When she hears stories about a mythical white giraffe that supposedly lives on the reserve, Martine is skeptical... until one rainy night when the white giraffe appears to her and Martine finds out that she must meet her destiny.
My favorite thing about this book is the rich setting. Lauren St. John lived on a reserve in Zimbabwe when she was a child and her experience with the animals and plants really shows in this book. It's quite a pleasant thing to be reading in cold, wet Chicagoland and find yourself transported to a lush jungle.
The White Giraffe kept reminding me of Lionboy, another kid-talks-to-animals fantasy book that I really enjoyed. Martine's a likeable character with a special gift that many kids will envy - the ability to speak to (kind of) and heal animals. I wish the background characters were a little more well-developed and, to be completely honest, I found some parts of it to be a little hokey. Overall, I think this is a story that will appeal to kids and I think the cover and title alone are enough to intrigue.
For those who do pick up the book and enjoy it, Ms. St. John has penned a few other adventures with Martine - Dolphin Song (2008) and The Last Leopard (March, 2009). It looks like a fourth book - The Elephant's Tale - is due out in the UK in August, but I don't know when it'll be hitting the shelves in the US.
Check out Lauren St. John's beautiful website to find out a bit more about her and her books. Read more reviews at Fuse #8 (where Betsy addresses the issue of Martine's race) and Deliciously Clean Reads. There's a booktalk posted at Booktalks - Quick and Simple. And definitely worth noting is that it looks like Walden Media is making a movie starring AnnaSophia Robb (yeah you know her; she was Leslie in Bridge to Terabithia). As far as I can tell, it's slated to be released this year. Read an interview with Ms. St. John on Walden Media's site.