'Just Ask Iris'

Mami, Freddy, and Iris Pinkowitz have just moved into a new apartment. But the halls smell, the elevator's broken, and 12-year-old Iris has another month of summer vacation in a new place far from friends. Worse yet, her mom insists that Iris spend her time learning to type. Depressing stuff.

But not for long. Author Lucy Frank spices this tale for young readers with a drama-inducing crisis: Iris discovers she needs a bra, Mami refuses to supply one, and a suitor enters the scene. Never mind that Don Juan is actually a stray cat. "Fluffy" arrives faithfully every morning for a week, then suddenly disappears.

Refusing to believe Fluffy is unfaithful, Iris starts a search and rescue. Beginning in the bodega downstairs, she learns the Cat Lady in 6B keeps dozens of cats. Since the elevator is out and the stairwell stinks, Iris hits the fire escape.

Attempting to reach 6B undetected, she ends up achieving everything but secrecy. Instead, Iris discovers her building's wacky residents. Among them, Will, the boy in a wheelchair, Daisy, the caretaker of three grandchildren, and Cuca, the mouthy parrot.

Iris's forays inadvertently become a plan - she could earn money to buy a bra herself by doing odd jobs for her neighbors. Along the way, of course, she makes friends and squanders half her cash on snacks for the pit bull upstairs.

Frank does more here than spin a quirky read. Through Iris and her neighbors, she gently introduces whopping issues such as single parenthood, low-income living, multiethnicity, physical handicap, racial prejudice, and being a bright, independent girl when that's not always encouraged.

More astounding, Frank does all this without moralizing.

Just Ask Iris

By Lucy Frank

Atheneum 214 pp., $17

Ages 9-12r

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