Some 2017 Middle Grade Books

I’ve really been letting this blog slide, and consequently, /I’ve really fallen behind on telling the internet about my favorite new books. In an attempt to catch up, I’d like to give a few very quick shout-outs to the middle-grade novels of 2017 (so far) that I personally feel are most significant. Runners-up would include Scar Island, The Siren Sisters, and Rick Riordan’s latest book, The Dark Prophecy. Also, the fantasy YA novel Caraval deserves a shout-out as well.

 

Forever or a Long Long Time by Caela Carter, 2017

Eleven-year-old Flora and her brother Julian were adopted almost two years ago, but they’re still struggling with the trauma of a childhood spent in multiple foster homes. When the various adults in their lives realize that Flora and Julian don’t believe that they were born, the family sets off on a mission to trace the children’s backstory. The main appeal of this book is the sense of mystery, but I love the fact that it discusses borderline-taboo (but very real and sadly common) issues such as childhood trauma and the imperfections of the foster care system. As a side note, there’s no need to worry about the possibility of disturbing content. The trauma that Flora experienced was not abuse or violence, but rather the absence of parental interaction and affection in early childhood.

2017 Family Game NightFamily Game Night and Other Catastrophes by Mary E. Lambert, 2017

Annabelle’s mother is a hoarder. So far, Annabelle has kept her life under control by keeping her own room absolutely clutter-free and not letting her friends within five miles of the house. But when a pile of newspapers falls, it’s the last straw. Annabelle comes to realize that her parents’ marriage is in jeopardy, her younger sister is an emotional wreck, her older brother is becoming increasingly distant, and even she doesn’t have her life quite as nice and neat as she thinks. This is a sympathetic depiction not only of a specific mental disorder and its effect on family relationships, but also of a few perfectly normal hardships of preteen life.

The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters: The Jolly Regina by Kara LaReau, 2017

This book is essentially the opposite of Pippi Longstocking. Pippi is a wacky and wild character who leaves her adventurous life on the sea to move into a relatively normal community. But Jaundice and Kale Bland are absurdly dull characters who leave their incredibly boring life when they are forced to join a wacky and wild pirate crew. A lot of the jokes will go over the heads of young readers (such as references to Gilligan’s Island and the name of Captain Ann Tennille) but overall, it’s a fun and silly read that I would recommend to kids looking for light-hearted humor.

2017 The Warden's DaughterThe Warden’s Daughter by Jerry Spinelli, 2017

Set in the summer of 1959, this book relates the various experiences of Cammie O’Reilly, a troubled preteen who lives in an apartment adjacent to the local prison where her father is warden. Subplots include Cammie’s struggles with grief over the long-ago death of her mother, a strained relationship with a friend who is overly hungry for fame, and relationships with two of the inmates in particular. Personally, I enjoyed the beginning of the book much more than the later chapters, when Cammie’s behavior spirals out of control and it becomes increasingly difficult to relate to her. But the setting and the characterization are both huge appeal factors for this story. This one gears older; it’s arguably more of a YA book than a middle-grade book.

The Ethan I Was Before by Ali Standish, 2017

After an accident that changes his life forever, twelve-year-old Ethan Truitt moves to his mother’s hometown and becomes friends with a girl who is bubbly and eccentric, but full of secrets. This is a pretty emotional book that explores themes of grief, guilt, and trust. The south Georgia setting is very atmospheric, and there’s enough mystery and suspense to give it a tone that you don’t often see in realistic fiction.

Early 2017 Picture Books

It feels like just a few days ago when I was compiling my best-of-2016 list. But we are now nearly one fourth of the way through 2017, so there’s already quite a lot of 2017 children’s literature out there. My reading pace has admittedly been slower than usual lately, but I still have accumulated a list of new favorites. Hopefully, I’ll later get around to blogging about some of the novel-length books I’ve loved. (For the record, The Ethan I Was Before and The Warden’s Daughter are probably my top two at the moment, with Scar Island coming in at a relatively close third) But for now, here are my remarks on some recent picture books, (and one early reader) including a couple non-fiction titles for grade-school aged kids.

 

Rivers of Sunlight: How the Sun Moves Water Around the Earth by Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm, 2017

This nonfiction picture book does a beautiful job of describing the water cycle through pictures that are visually appealing and that complement the text, making the science easier to understand. The text itself is brief and concise, and its positioning on the page helps to make it look and feel like poetry. I personally found it a little corny that the book is written in first person from the sun’s perspective, especially on the concluding page (not counting the somewhat excessive six pages of notes) when the sun makes a promise to the reader and asks the reader to commit to “find[ing] ways to use water sparingly and keep[ing] it clean”. But I am willing to concede that as a personal opinion that doesn’t necessarily reflect the book’s quality.

 

Noisy Night by Mac Barnett, pictures by Brian Biggs, 2017

pb noisy nightFor Mac Barnett, 2017 is off to a good start, as he has two new picture books that have been well received. Both of them are making my list. Noisy Night is a short and simple story with bright colors and fun noises. It starts with a boy wondering what is going LALALA above his head, and each double-page spread introduces the character(s) on the floor above. The residents of each floor are making some type of noise and wondering who is making the noise they hear from the next floor up. Finally, at the end of the book, who see an old man who yells “GO TO BED!” at all of his noisy downstairs neighbors, and finally hears the click of a light switch being turned off. It may not be an especially interesting ending from a literary perspective, but it will entertain young children. This will make a fun bedtime story for a toddler or preschooler, and it will also be a great book to use in library storytimes.

 

Triangle by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen, 2017

This story about an anthropomorphic triangle’s “sneaky trick” on his friend Square is silly, pointless, childish, and consequently wonderful. I can imagine this book getting some giggles in a storytime for preschoolers, (although any grownups present are less likely to appreciate the humor) but I also think it’s a great choice for a young reader—perhaps around first grade—who is just barely ready for a book of this reading level. It has sentences up to twelve words long and words as challenging as “triangle”. Due to its picture book format and sparse text, this will not be an intimidating book, and the plot’s simplicity is conducive to comprehension even if the reader needs to take the story slowly in order to sound out words.

 

Pig & Goose and the First Day of Spring by Rebecca Bond, 2017

In terms of its reading level, this book does a nice job of filling the niche of literature for kids who are a bit too advanced for Henry and Mudge or Fancy Nancy, but not quite ready for Magic Tree House or Bad Kitty. It has several sentences per page, and some of those sentences are actually pretty long, but it also has color pictures on every page and quite a bit of white space. It is divided into chapters, but is considerably shorter and uses a larger font size than most picture books. It’s comparable to the popular Princess in Black series in those respects. But in my opinion, it falls a little short of Princess in Black’s quality because the writing style is stilted and a little too repetitive and because it doesn’t have strong appeal factors. The plot leaves a fair bit to be desired. On the whole, though, it’s not a bad book, and I can certainly imagine scenarios in which I’d recommend it.

 

Tugboat Bill and the River Rescue by Calista Brill, illustrated by Tad Carpenter, 2017

Ah, another picture book about a cute anthropomorphic mode of transportation! And it’s a story about an underappreciated character who does something to earn respect and sudden popularity from his peers! There may not be anything particularly creative or innovative about this particular book, but its topic and plot are tried-and-true crowd pleasers. Especially if that crowd includes preschool boys, a demographic group that is likely to be fans of a transportation theme. Tugboat Bill and his barge friend Mabel will fit nicely into a library storytime about boats or rivers. And I’m sure that somewhere out there, there will be a few parents who will find themselves accidentally memorizing this story from reading it aloud so often.

 

Grand Canyon by Jason Chin, 2017

pb Grand CanyonOkay, this book has raised a very puzzling question in my mind. Is it “Grand Canyon” or “the Grand Canyon”? I’ve been used to using the definite article, so it was a little jarring to read about “Grand Canyon” without the definite article. A Google search reveals that both phrasings are commonly used. I suppose they’re probably both grammatically correct, in which case that has absolutely no bearing on the quality of this book. In terms of its artwork, its breadth of information, and its narrative voice, this is an excellent book that will be a valuable resource for kids from about second grade to about fifth grade. It’s significantly longer than its picture book format would lead one to expect, so it will be more useful to readers towards the older side of that range. Although it conveys a lot of geological and ecological information, it reads like a work of fiction, thanks to the first-person point of view. The narrator is a girl who is exploring the canyon with her father.

 

Wolf in the Snow by Matthew Cordell, 2017

In this nearly-wordless book, a girl gets lost in the snow on her way back from school and a wolf pup falls behind the pack and likewise gets lost. When the two cross paths, the girl sympathizes with the pup. He is too small to walk through the deep snow, so she carries him all the way to the woods, following the sounds of wolves howling in the distance. Once the young wolf is safely home, she continues towards her own home, this time aided by the sound of her dog barking in the distance. But she doesn’t make it. The wolves find her huddled up in the snow, presumably unconscious. They form a circle around her and howl, alerting the dog (and thereby, the girl’s parents) to her location. The last page shows the girl inside her home, drinking hot chocolate in front of the fire with her parents and the dog. (There are a couple minor plot details that are unclear to me. Does the girl fall because she injured herself? Or was she so tired that she fell asleep on her feet? I wasn’t even entirely sure whether she was already lost before she went out of the way to take the wolf pup home, but the summary on the inside jacket says that they’re both lost.) It’s a sweet story about friendship/family/kindness, but I think my favorite thing about this book is the wolves’ faces. They’re incredibly expressive given the not-quite-realistic art style. (It’s watercolor and ink, in case you’re wondering.) When an almost wordless book can tell a story with this many essential plot points, that says a lot about the skill of the illustrator.

 

The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet! By Carmen Agra Deedy, illustrated by Eugene Yelchin, 2017

pb the rooster who would not be quietAlthough it’s an original story, the plot of this book resembles a folk tale in its tone, pace, use of repetition, and the way the end cycles back to the beginning. It tells of a village called La Paz, where everyone sings all the time. The people are fed up with the noise, so they fire the mayor and elect Don Pere to take his place. Under Don Pere, the village becomes a silent place where singing is illegal. These laws stand for seven years, until the day when a rooster shows up in town. What ensues is a battle of wills as Don Pere tries to quiet the rooster by taking away everything that makes him happy, one by one. But the rooster can always find a song to sing. Eventually, the villagers gather around the loud rooster and angry mayor. The rooster’s singing inspires them to rediscover their own songs. Don Pere leaves town and La Paz is once again a noisy place. (La Paz, by the way, means Peace) The message about not letting yourself be silenced is eventually explicitly stated, maybe even a little too thoroughly, since the book leaves a bit of a preachy aftertaste. But overall, I love this book, both for the story and the vibrant, colorful artwork.

 

Antoinette by Kelly DiPucchio and Christian Robinson, 2017

I may not be appreciating this book as much as it deserves; maybe I’m missing something wonderful about it. But frankly, I don’t see that there’s anything particularly special about the plot, the artwork, or the writing. This seemed to me like a fairly generic dog story set in France. Not at all bad, but generic. Antoinette is one of four puppies who are all special—but Antoinette doesn’t know yet what it is that makes her special. After rescuing a puppy from another family, (the sister of Gaston, who is the subject of an earlier book by DiPucchio’s) Antoinette discovers that her specialty is her bravery, along with the reliability of following her heart and her nose. It’s a sweet story, and I’m not surprised that it’s somewhat popular, but I don’t think it really deserves quite the buzz it’s received.

 

The Unexpected Love Story of Alfred Fiddleduckling by Timothy Basil Ering, 2017

I can think of numerous ways to interpret the title of this picture book. Perhaps the love story is about Captain Alfred and his wife back home. Perhaps it’s about the love between the duck egg/ duckling that Captain Alfred is bringing home for his wife, and the Captain’s fiddle, which the duckling finds after a terrible storm that (evidently) destroys Captain Alfred’s boat. Maybe, it’s about the friendship that develops between the duckling and the dog who discovers him when the duckling and fiddle reach land. Or maybe, it’s about the music of the fiddle, which is responsible for reuniting the wife, her lost dog, the gift duckling, and the captain. The story is sweet, almost bordering on sappy, but the gorgeous acrylic artwork is the most noteworthy aspect of this book. It conveys a variety of moods, from the bright and happy opening scene of Captain Alfred setting out towards home, to the dark and raging storm, then the gray mist and sadness in the aftermath of the storm, and finally the colorful, magical music of the fiddle and the characters’ return home. Although Candlewick Press says that this book is for ages 2-5, I would argue that it skews a bit older than that, maybe more like 4-6, due to the complexity of the plot and the subdued color palette of the entire middle of the book.

 

Cat Knit by Jacob Grant, 2016

pb Cat KnitDo I only like this book because I know a certain other cat who is friends with a ball of yarn? Perhaps. I openly admit my bias towards cat books, particularly those that describe scenarios that regularly occur in my own catful home. But I think that this book can also be greatly enjoyed by children who have never watched my cat play with yarn. In fact, since cats’ love for yarn is such a famous trope, even children who aren’t necessarily cat lovers will be entertained by the friendship between Cat and Yarn, two of the three characters in this book. The third character is Girl. Readers as young as three years old will understand and enjoy the plot—Girl takes Yarn away and transforms Yarn into a sweater, and Cat is initially upset that his friend has changed. But by the end of the book, Cat has decided that Yarn is still his friend. On the one hand, this is a simple but beautiful story about friendship and acceptance of change. But on the other hand, it’s a goofy book that allows young readers to laugh at Cat because they know something that he doesn’t. At that age, children are still in the process of developing theory of mind, (which is essentially the understanding that different people/characters can know or believe different things) and these types of stories are therefore even funnier to preschoolers than they are to adults.

 

Egg by Kevin Henkes, 2017

Here is a picture book that I can’t wait to use in storytime. It features bright and simple illustrations, sparse text, (except for the page that says “waiting” sixteen times) and a hilarious plot. First, we see four eggs of different colors. Three of them crack open and hatch, but the green one does nothing. The birds are impatient, but when the final egg does hatch to reveal a baby alligator, they scatter. In a predictable happy ending, the three birds eventually return and befriend the baby alligator. (And yes, I’m sure it’s an alligator and not a crocodile. Since he’s a hatchling, I’ll concede that the teeth might just be too small to include in these simple pictures, but the shape of the snout makes it pretty clear.)

 

A Greyhound, A Groundhog by Emily Jenkins, illustrated by Chris Appelhans, 2017

I didn’t realize that I had any specific prior assumptions about this book until I opened it and found that it wasn’t what I was expecting at all. I guess I was anticipating it to be longer than most picture books, perhaps with a detailed plot, and I was imagining a formal tone. Actually, it is anything but wordy and serious. Essentially, it’s about two animals playing together. Short sentences, repetition, and use of rhyme and alliteration make this book just as light-hearted and playful as the animals’ chasing game. The illustrations are likewise simple, many of them set against a plain white background, but still manage to pack in enough details to make them likable and memorable. The pinks and blues, especially towards the end of the book, evoke a sunrise-like mood that makes up for anything the pictures would otherwise be lacking.

 

Watersong by Tim McCanna, illustrated by Richard Smythe, 2017

Worded entirely in onomatopoeias, this book depicts a rainfall as experienced by a fox as he searches for shelter and then joins his family when the rain is over. I love the watercolor artwork with its colors, details, and frequently-changing perspective. And the text is effective in its portrayal of the rain. But the informational page at the end struck me as being disorganized and awkward. I wouldn’t say it ruined the book for me, but it did detract from it just a little.

 

Pax and Blue by Lori Richmond, 2017

It isn’t easy being little. I’m not sure whether the protagonist Pax is small for his age, or if he’s just little in the sense that he’s very young, but at any rate, his smallness leads him to bond with a pigeon. He names the pigeon Blue and brings him a little toast every morning. But one day, Pax’s mother rushes him onto the subway too quickly for him to feed Blue first. Blue follows Pax onto the subway, leading first to chaos and then to a predictable happy ending when they find each other. The plot feels underdeveloped, even considering the brevity and simplicity of the story, but the value of friendship is aptly expressed and the characters are endearing. Although the illustrations are simple and not very colorful, the characters’ faces are very expressive. I think that’s mostly thanks to the eyebrows. I’m only just now noting the glaring inaccuracy; pigeons don’t generally have eyebrows.

 

Everybunny Dance! By Ellie Sandall, 2017

What do bunnies do when no one is watching? They dance, of course, and then they play and sing—until the fox approaches, that is, and then they run. What does a fox do when he thinks no one is watching? He waltzes and pirouettes, he somersaults and plays his clarinet, and then he sheds a tear of loneliness. But he isn’t really alone. The bunnies are watching from their hiding spot, and after the fox’s performance, they can’t help applauding. Now, the bunnies and the fox all dance and play together. The bright artwork and rhyming text will make this a fun read-aloud in a storytime or at home, but the part that I expect children to love the most is the fox’s unexpected performance.

 

Bunny’s Book Club by Annie Silvestro, illustrated by Tatjana Mai-Wyss, 2017

pb bunnys book clubThis is not an ideal storytime book—it’s on the long side and the plot is too complex for most kids younger than about five—but I’d highly recommend it for a newly independent reader, for a classroom read-aloud, or for parent-child reading at home. It starts with a few clichéd remarks about how much Bunny loves books, but before the reader has time to get bored, Bunny is sneaking into the library in the dark of night. This escapade becomes a nighttime occurrence, and each time, Bunny brings back a few books. (So that’s why library books sometimes disappear right off the shelves! Mystery solved!) Then Bunny begins bringing his friends. First Porcupine, then Bear, and eventually a group of nine woodland animals are visiting the library together. Predictably, the librarian catches them… but instead of banning them from the library, she gives them library cards and allows them to check out books. As a librarian, I suppose I’m biased towards books that have a pro-library message, but besides that element, this story is humorous and features bright and cheery artwork. With the exception of a couple text-heavy pages, there are few enough sentences per page (about one to three) to make it approachable for even a reluctant reader.

 

How Do Dinosaurs Choose Their Pets? By Jane Yolen, illustrated by Mark Teague, 2017

This fun series by Jane Yolen is one that I recommend frequently to parents or caregivers of three- or four- year olds. The books are relatively short, colorful, and funny, and the rhymes are yet another appeal factor. Each book begins with a series of questions about the dinosaurs’ behaviors, all of which are silly and/or just plain wrong. The book then ends by answering those questions with a “No” and then describing what a good dinosaur actually does. This particular book, in my opinion, is a little less fun than the ones that describe everyday activities (How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight? and How Do Dinosaurs Eat Their Food? are my favorites) But this is still a book that I would recommend to a wide audience, and that I could potentially use in storytimes in the future.

History is All You Left Me

History is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera, 2017

YA novel; realistic fiction, LGBT

history-is-all-you-left-meGriffin is devastated by the death of Theo, who has been his friend since middle school, his boyfriend since one summer day two years ago, and technically, his ex-boyfriend since Theo left for college last year. As he mourns his “favorite human,” Griffin bonds with the one person who understands how he feels: Jackson, Theo’s new boyfriend and Griffin’s nemesis until now. The book tells Griffin’s story non-chronologically, alternating between “today” chapters that begin with the day of Theo’s funeral, and “history” chapters beginning with the day they decided they were dating. As the book progresses, the reader gradually learns more about the circumstances surrounding Theo’s death and who was in love with whom on that day.

Let me start by saying that overall, this is a well-written and interesting book. The characters are believable and likable, and there’s a lot of character development going on in the story. The out-of-order sequence of plot points works well and adds an element of suspense that often isn’t there in stories this realistic. And Griffin’s narrative voice, (which addresses Theo in the “today” chapters and speaks in a more traditional first person in the “history” chapters) is conversational enough to give this introspection-heavy book the same tone as a dialogue-heavy book. And, as someone who sort of has OCD, (I have been diagnosed with it in the past, but my current diagnoses is General Anxiety Disorder with OCD tendencies) I always appreciate books like this one that depict the disorder accurately.

But there were a number of things I didn’t like about this book. Part of it is personal preferences—I’m generally not a huge fan of stories with a lot of sexual content, and I don’t tend to enjoy LGBT romance novels. Besides, a book that is about grief and takes place in winter is naturally going to be on the bleak side, which is also not a favorite literary trait of mine. But I also feel that there are some themes that just weren’t thoroughly developed or adequately used. The messages about moving on, forgiveness, honesty, and finding one’s own happiness are either under-emphasized throughout the book, or over-emphasized in the last few pages. The frequent mentions of alternate universes gave me a sense that they were building up to some big philosophical point, but that never happened. The very last sentence made me wonder if it’s implying the possibility that Griffin is an unreliable narrator, but as far as I can tell, there is absolutely no hint of that until then. Although, Griffin talks to Theo and believes Theo can hear him, but that actually doesn’t seem that out-of-the-ordinary considering the grief and shock that Griffin is experiencing regarding Theo’s death. Finally, although SLJ’s review praised the book for Griffin’s gradual discovery that Theo was also a flawed human, I didn’t get that impression. It seemed to me that Griffin consistently lionized Theo except in one specific incident.

But I’ll concede that these are minor quibbles and that this book is certainly worth a read. I would recommend it for young adult readers who are specifically looking for LGBT romance, for protagonists with OCD, or with plotlines that center around death. (No judging; I recall going through a death-story phase as a teen) I feel that it gears towards the older end of YA, if only because two of the major characters and some secondary characters are college students. As a side note, Silvera has a book scheduled to be published in September that sounds very intriguing.

Remarks on 2017’s Youth Media Awards

I was rather pleased with myself for the speed with which I updated the award-winner bibliographies on my library’s website after ALA’s Youth Media Awards were announced last Monday morning. But it’s taken me a whole week to get around to commenting on the awards here.

Barnhill_GirlWhoDrankMoon_FINAL_PRNT.indd

2017 Newbery Award Winner

For any of you who aren’t aware, the ALA Youth Media Awards include the famous Newbery and Caldecott medals, as well as some newer and somewhat less widely-known awards. You can see a full list of winners, including honor books, on this page from ALA’s website. My favorites of the Youth Media Awards (besides the Newbery and Caldecott) are the Printz for YA literature, the Geisel for beginning readers, the Sibert for nonfiction, and the Coretta Scott King for African American literature. For all of those, I wrote up a wish-list and a prediction-list ahead of time.

yma-radiant-child

2017 Caldecott Award Winner and Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award Winner

My predictions weren’t extremely accurate. The Newbery book, The Girl Who Drank the Moon was a bit of a surprise, as was the Caldecott winner, Radiant Child. Both of those were books that I had read and that I would describe as good books, but they are both books that I admittedly had basically written off as contenders for major awards. For the Printz, Geisel, and Sibert, I was so far off that most of the honor books hadn’t even been on my radar. (Although I had read both We Are Growing which won the Geisel, and March Book 3, which won both the Printz and Sibert.) My Coretta Scott King predictions were the closest. Although I didn’t correctly guess either of the winners, (March Book 3 for the author award and Radiant Child for the illustrator award) I knew that Freedom Over Me, Freedom in Congo Square, and March Book 3 would all do well. I didn’t predict, though, that they would win three honors, two honors, and three medals respectively, just out of my six favorite awards.

march-book-three

2017 Coretta Scott King Author Award Winner,  Printz Award Winner, and Sibert Award Winner, as well as winning the National Book Award for books for youth last November

I would like to point out, though, that the three books that I wanted and expected to win the Printz, (The Sun is Also a Star) the Newbery, (Wolf Hollow) and the Caldecott (They All Saw a Cat) all were named honor books. And my second-favorite Newbery contender, The Inquisitor’s Tale, was also named an honor book, which I did not actually expect to happen. So, all in all, I feel like I got my way.

pb-freedom-over-me

2017 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book, Coretta Scott King Author Honor Book, and Newbery Honor Book

Not that that really matters, of course; there’s a reason that these awards are determined by committees rather than individuals. So what I most want to express following these awards is gratitude for the committee members, who worked so hard reading, thinking, and discussing in order to select these award winners. And now, it’s time to start speculating about 2018’s Youth Media Awards…

Best Books of 2016

This list has been a long time in coming. Not only have I spent an entire year reading a whole lot of children’s literature and keeping a running list of books that I especially liked, but it’s taken me close to three weeks to narrow that list down and to write a paragraph for each of my favorites. To be honest, I’m frustrated and disappointed that my list wasn’t finished and ready to go online right on New Year’s Day. But it’s done now, so here it is. For the picture books and the children’s novels, (aka middle-grade fiction) I’ve also included a list of runners-up. Since many of these books have shown up on my blog previously, I’ve put hyperlinks to the older post on the title. Finally, before I get to the list itself, here is a link to my 2014 list and here is a link to my 2015 list.

Picture Books

Leave Me Alone! By Vera Brosgol

This story starts with a folk-tale feel, as an old lady with lots of grandchildren struggles to get her knitting done. The titular line is what she yells as she leaves the village to go knit in the peace of the woods. And then when she leaves the forest with the annoying bears to go knit in the peace of the mountainside. And then when she leaves the mountainside with the annoying mountain goats to go knit on the moon. And then once more when she leaves the moon with the annoying little green moon-men to go knit in the peace of the void beyond the wormhole. At the end of the story, she completes all her knitting and returns home to give the new sweaters to her grandchildren. It’s a fun, funny story that’s both traditional (in format and setting) and original, (how many picture books about little old villager ladies involve wormholes) and makes for a fun read-aloud.It may not be a likely Caldecott contender like some of the books on this list, but if you’re looking for a light-hearted read-aloud, this is an especially good one.

Coyote Moon by Maria Gianferrari, pictures by Bagram Ibatoulline 

pb-coyote-moonThere are positive things I could say about the educational value of this book or about the descriptive, yet elegantly concise text. But what makes this book outstanding is the artwork. The word beautiful doesn’t even begin to cover it. It’s very realistic, it makes very effective use of shadows, (even though it mostly takes place in the dark anyway) and perhaps most importantly, the variety of the angles of perspective make each double-page spread as eye-catching and intriguing as the last.

 

Owl Sees Owl by Laura Godwin and Rob Dunlavey

This book is a palindrome! Well, not exactly, because you still have to keep the letters within the words in their original order. But the word order is the same backwards and forwards. Granted, it doesn’t use full sentences, which means that probably wasn’t an extremely difficult feat of grammatical talent. But it’s still clever, especially since the plot also comes full circle. It’s about a young owl who flies away from his nest to explore, then returns home. The three words of the title are the exact middle of the book, and the corresponding illustration shows Owl looking at his reflection in the water. This would make a great storytime book for very young children, although the illustrations are dark and subdued because it’s nighttime.

Before Morning by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Beth Krommes

pb-before-morningHere is one of the top two on my Caldecott wish list. (Don’t ask me to choose between them.) I love everything about this book: the style of the artwork, the beautiful simplicity of the text, the little details that you’ll only notice if you move through the book slowly, the calm and hopeful mood… This is not so much a book for library storytimes as it is a book to check out, (or buy) take home, and read again and again and again and again. I hope that a generation or two from now, this book will be considered a classic and will still be read and enjoyed by many.

Freedom in Congo Square by Carole Boston Weatherford and R. Gregory Christie

This book about the one exciting part of New Orleans slaves’ lives is technically nonfiction and poetry as well as a picture book. It’s a good book no matter which of those directions you approach it from, and as with any picture book, it’s the interplay of art and text that makes it a good book. But for me, the art is what pushes this book from “good” to “one of the best of the year.” I have to admit that I have a bit of a bias towards realistic-looking art, but the stylized artwork in this book is good enough that it immediately captured my attention and high regard anyway. I’m anticipating a Coretta Scott King Award in the near future for this book, and I suspect it’s a strong Caldecott contender, too.

They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel 

pb-they-all-saw-a-catThis is the other book that would like to see win the Caldecott, and I think there’s a good chance of that. As a cat encounters various other animals, the artistic style, color scheme, and even the features of the cat change to demonstrate others’ perception of the cat. For instance, on the dog’s double-page, the cat looks scrawny and a little mean, while the mouse sees the cat as a scary, ferocious monster and the flea sees an expanse of fur. The text is simple, short, and repetitive, making it the type of book that even very young children can enjoy. However, older children and adults will be able to appreciate the creativity of the art.

Nanette’s Baguette by Mo Willems

It may be a little vague and unhelpful to describe a book as “playful”, but there really isn’t any better word to describe Mo Willems’ most recent contribution to children’s literature. A young frog named Nanette has been sent out to get a baguette. She gives into temptation and eats the baguette on the way home and must woefully admit to her mom what she has done. The twist ending when (spoiler!) mom eats the replacement baguette will have preschoolers giggling, but the most fun part of this book is how Willems repeatedly uses words ending with the ‘et’ sounds. Even children who don’t yet understand rhyme will pick up on that pattern and enjoy it. In fact, this is a great book for teaching children about rhymes and sounds within words.

More Picture Books

Thunder Boy Jr. by Sherman Alexie, illustrated by Yuyi Morales

The White Cat and the Monk by Jo Ellen Bogart, illustrations by Sydney Smith

Spot, the Cat by Henry Cole

Snappsy the Alligator Did Not Ask to Be in This Book! By Julie Falatko, pictures by Tim Miller

Chicken in Space by Adam Lehrhaupt, illustrated by Shahar Kober

Shh! Bears Sleeping by David Martin, pictures by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher

Faraway Fox by Jolene Thompson, illustrated by Justin K. Thompson

Early Readers

Ralph and the Rocket Ship by Alyssa Satin Capucilli, illustrated by Henry Cole

The plot of this book is perhaps just a little cliche, but it’s one that its target audience will enjoy. Ralph loves rocket ships and wishes he had one, but his parents say that a rocket ship is too big. They’d rather he play with his toy truck and toy tractor, but those vehicles can’t fly to the stars or the moon. Ralph thinks about his problem and then comes up with a brilliant idea. He can make his own rocket ship! So he builds one out of a cardboard box, and all ends well. This book includes dialogue and sentences as long as fifteen words, but it also has a controlled vocabulary, large font, and a high picture-to-text ratio. Therefore, it’s not a particularly difficult read and is age-appropriate for some preschoolers, many kindergarteners, and most first-graders.

Up by Joe Cepeda

2016-upIt isn’t easy to put together a good story using a controlled vocabulary suitable for a beginning reader, especially when the target audience is absolute beginners who aren’t ready for words of more than four letters or sentences of more than four words. A lot of books at that level aren’t really stories with a plot, or at best, they have very simple plots. This one is an exception. Despite its brevity and controlled vocabulary, this book is a fun fantasy about a boy who uses a pinwheel to fly out of his bedroom window one windy day. Obviously, the details are in the pictures, which are also distinctive. I’ve asked Google what the term is for the stylized, sketch-like edges in these pictures, but I can’t find such a term and I’m starting to think that there’s no official name for it. So I’m calling it sketch edges. The artwork in this book is made distinctive by its use of sketch edges.

The Cookie Fiasco by Dan Santat

This book is one of two that is kicking off the new Elephant & Piggie Like Reading! series. The book begins and ends with a couple pages of Gerald (the elephant) and Piggie talking about the book. The main storyline, however, is about a different group of animals. Four friends have three cookies, but they want “equal cookies for all”. Unfortunately, Hippo breaks things when he is nervous. Now there are six half-cookies for four friends. After Hippo continues breaking the cookies, there are twelve quarter-cookies, and everyone gets three pieces. This is a fun book about sharing and math, and I would especially suggest it for children who are just beginning to read full sentences. But best of all, it’s very, very funny.

The Thank You Book by Mo Willems 

The bad news is that Mo Willems’ extremely popular Elephant and Piggie series will no longer be adding new books. (At least not as we’ve known them up to now. See The Cookie Fiasco listed above.) The good news is that this final book is a particularly good one. Piggie sets out to thank everyone important to her, but Gerald is sure that she will forget someone– and she does! But, of course, since this is an Elephant and Piggie book after all, it ends on a sweet note. This book and all of the others preceding it are great for beginning readers around the age of five or six, but will also entertain children of a wide range of ages.

Chapter Books

Bad Kitty Goes to the Vet by Nick Bruel

It’s no wonder that the Bad Kitty series is wildly popular among children in the five-to-eight age range. They’re satisfyingly thick chapter books with silly plots, lots of large pictures, and a manageable amount of text. The writing is at approximately a second-grade reading level, although they’re also great for above-average readers a bit younger than that, or as a book for a parent and child to read together. In this particular book, Kitty is sick and isn’t even eating her food. Once her human has undertaken the monumental task of getting her to the vet, she is given a checkup and then given a sedative while (spoiler!) the vet removes a bad tooth. While sleeping, Kitty dreams that she has died and will only be allowed into Pussycat Paradise if she can prove that she’s capable of being nice to Puppy.

The Princess in Black and the Hungry Bunny Horde by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale, illustrated by LeUyen Pham

2016-princess-in-blackPrincess Magnolia and her unicorn Frimplepants are meeting Princess Sneezewort for brunch, but while they’re on their way, the need arises for them to switch to their secret identities to solve a monster problem. The monsters turn out to be nothing but bunnies, and the Princess in Black doesn’t believe they’re dangerous. But they turn out to be a bigger challenge than she had anticipated. This is the third book in a series that is loved my many a six- or seven- year old girl, and for good reason. Who can resist a monster-battling ninja princess? Especially when her adventures are funny, illustrated in full color, and written in easy-to-read large text? I like to recommend this series for kids who are transitioning from readers to “real” chapter books.

Balto of the Blue Dawn by Mary Pope Osborne

For slightly older kids who are comfortable with longer books, the Magic Tree House series is an excellent one to try. The series relates the adventures of siblings Jack and Annie, who can travel throughout history (and mythology) in a tree house belonging to Morgan Le Fay of Arthurian legends. They’re actually very intellectual considering how young their audience is, which is one of the things that parents, librarians, educators, and kids love so much about them. In this book, Jack and Annie travel to Alaska in 1925 and travel by dogsled to deliver medicine needed to save the people of Nome. Balto, a dog who plays a prominent role in the book, really lived and really delivered life-saving medicine to Nome in 1925.

Graphic Novels

Mighty Jack by Ben Hatke

Very loosely based on Jack and the Beanstalk, this graphic novel is about a teenage boy who ends up with a magical garden in his backyard after allowing his autistic, non-verbal sister Maddy to trade the family car for some magic beans. But that’s only the beginning of the trouble. Jack can’t tell Maddy no, which repeatedly causes problems that get Jack in trouble with his mother. The plants in the garden are alive, and Jack, Maddie, and the cute girl next door spend all their time fighting with the garden and its creatures, including a dragon and a giant snail. The book ends with the appearance of a new, especially dangerous creature, and the promise of more books to come. This is an exciting adventure for graphic novel fans whose interests fall somewhere between realistic fiction and superhero comics.

The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks

2016-nameless-cityI think that what I like most about this book is the world-building. Even though we as readers don’t know anything initially about the history, social or political hierarchy, or ethnic groups of the world where this story takes place, we can still follow both the political aspects of the story, and the budding friendship between two young people whose lives are completely different. Despite the politics that dominate the plot, this is also a high-action adventure. The art itself also deserves some praise, especially for the architectural details that bring the nameless city alive on the page. I can see it appealing to readers as young as fourth or fifth grade, but this is also a graphic novel with appeal factors for teens.

Compass South by Hope Larson, illustrations by Rebecca Mock

It’s 1860 in New York, and twelve-year-old twins Alexander and Cleopatra have gotten involved with a gang. After getting in trouble with the police, they leave New York to start a new life. The plan is that they will go to New Orleans to respond to a newspaper ad from a man looking for his own children who happen to fit Alex and Cleo’s description. (As long as Cleo disguises herself as a boy) Things start going wrong when they run into another pair with the same idea. Alex and Cleo get separated, each accompanied by one of the other set of imposters. Over the course of their journey and their encounters with pirates, they discover that the pocket-watch and knife that they inherited from their long-lost parents are somehow the key to a treasure. I found this book to be distinctive as a graphic novel in terms of the complexity of its plot, not to mention the historical setting.

March: Book Three by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell 

The last in a trilogy about the author’s experiences in the civil rights movement, this nonfiction graphic novel is notable both in terms of its subject matter and its unusual use of the graphic novel format. But besides being unusual, it’s a fantastic example of how expressive the graphic novel format can be. Facial expressions, font, and shapes of the word bubbles can say a lot, while the use of perspective can determine the mood. With its variety of angles and distances, as well as a variety of panel shapes and sizes, this book is dramatic and visually appealing even though it’s all black and white. Recommended for teens (as well as adults) or older children with some background knowledge of the civil rights era.

Snow White by Matt Phelan

2016-snow-whiteRetellings of well-known fairy tales have been pretty popular in children’s and teen’s literature for a number of years now, but this one stands out as an especially good one. That’s partly because of the quality of the artwork. My favorite detail is the use of colors. Most of the drawings are black and white, or in some cases, sepia -toned. So the few colored objects- blood, the apple, the blue of the glass window, and the few full-colored pages depicting the happy ending– really stand out as being significant and even poignant. But the other fun thing about this book is the setting. Snow White is a story that isn’t typically moved away from its original Germanic setting, but here, it’s placed in the twenties. (1928 New York City, to be specific, just at the dawn of the Great Depression) The stepmother is a Broadway star rather than literal royalty, the woods are transformed to Hooverville, and the dwarves are replaced with a band of street urchins. This graphic novel has appeal factors both for children and teens. It has very little text and will be manageable for even a very reluctant reader.

Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier

Just by virtue of its author/artist, this is an extremely popular middle-grade book. Telgemeier’s bright art and realistic stories appeal strongly to avid readers and reluctant readers alike and are unintimidating for even young readers. This one is a bit different from her previous books in that it’s not purely realistic fiction. In the town that the protagonist Cat and her family move to, ghosts are real. Cat is confused and upset that everyone else actually likes the ghosts, but as the Day of the Dead celebration approaches, her perspective towards death and ghosts changes. I considered not putting this book on my list, because even though I enjoyed it and appreciated its candid discussion of terminal illness, it has some issues with historical and cultural accuracy. Specifically, it depicts the “ancient” ghosts at the old mission as being Mexican and speaking Spanish, even though most of the people buried in mission cemeteries were native people of the area. There would have been Spanish people buried there as well, so I think we can explain away that apparent inconsistency. But even then, the omission of any acknowledgment of the history of the missions and the mass deaths of native people that occurred as Spanish people settled the area. Really, this book is surprisingly uninformative about any California history, considering that it’s a book about ghosts and the observance of a traditional holiday. I decided to include this book on my list anyway, but I felt compelled to acknowledge that there’s a valid case to be made against it.

Children’s Novels

All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook by Leslie Connor 

perry-t-cookEleven-year-old Perry has never known any home other than the Blue River Co-Ed Correctional Facility… that is, prison. But when the new district attorney finds out about this arrangement, he removes Perry and takes him home as a foster child. Although the district attorney happens to be Perry’s best friend’s stepfather, Perry is unhappy being separated from his mother, who is in prison for accidental manslaughter. This book contains a lot of the schoolwork/ friendship/ mean kids at school themes typical of middle-grade fiction, but Perry’s personality and backstory are distinctive enough to make the book feel innovative and even informative. It also has an element of mystery, because Perry is trying to figure out the details of the event that put his mother in prison. I think that Perry’s story be a great prompt for some very interesting discussions (or internal monologues) among kids between fourth and eighth grade, not only about incarceration and unique living situations, but also about the sometimes subtle differences between right and wrong, or between good people and bad people.

Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo 

The writing style in DiCamillo’s newest book is unique, so much so that this book can’t be fully enjoyed until you settle into the rhythm and the tone. It has short paragraphs, dry humor, eccentric characters with distinctive mannerisms, and straight-forward, simple language that somehow manages to convey just as much detail, emotion, and commentary on the human experience as a book with a more flowery or elaborate writing style. All of those things are good things, or at worst, neutral, but I still have very mixed feelings about this book because of them. It’s making my list because the story is interesting and memorable, which obviously means that it qualifies as “good”. I’d strongly recommend this book to anyone who has enjoyed DiCamillo’s previous work, and it has appeal factors that just might be the thing to hook a reluctant reader. But frankly, this isn’t one of my Newbery hopes, even though I know that quite a lot of people are rooting for it.

The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog by Adam Gidwitz, illuminated by Hatem Aly 

inquisitors-talePart adventure, part fantasy, and part thoroughly-researched historical fiction, this middle-grade novel is one of the most entertaining and intellectual children’s books of the year. I think it would by my second Newbery wish. (After Wolf Hollow, listed in the young adult category below) It’s the year 1242, and a group of travelers who cross paths in an inn start telling what they know about the three children who are the subject of all the talk in France. The collection-of-tales format is a bit reminiscent of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, while most of the events are drawn from French legends, folklore, and historical events. I picked up pretty quickly on the fact that Jeanne, one of the three protagonists, was modeled after Joan of Arc, but before reading the author’s note, (which I found far more interesting than many author’s notes) I didn’t realize just how much this book is grounded in facts and in legends that are just as old as those facts. I don’t have time or space to enumerate all the things I love about the book, which is just one more reason that I recommend that you read it for yourselves.

The Key to Extraordinary by Natalie Lloyd 

This right here is probably the most underrated and overlooked book of 2016. (At least, it is if we’re going by my opinion, which we obviously are since this is my blog) It has received some positive attention, but I haven’t seen it on other best-of-2016 lists, and I haven’t read much discussion about what it has to say about destiny, human connection, and what it means to be extraordinary. I admit that I have a soft spot for books in which the protagonist uncovers family history, and that I find something particularly appealing about the old-fashioned small-town setting and Lloyd’s brand of magical realism. This book was written specifically for people with my specific reading preferences. So that’s certainly why I’m giving this book more credit than the general public or the children’s literature community. But I stand by my opinion that it’s a very good book, and that you absolutely need to read it if phrases like “Destiny Dream”, “Boneyard Brew”, and “Darlin’ Daisy” sound good and if you believe in hidden treasures, magic flowers, and the powers of baked goods.

The Remarkable Journey of Charlie Price by Jennifer Maschari

Twelve-year-old Charlie misses his mom and wishes he could have her back, but he knows that she’s gone forever, and that his life without her is a world where you can’t count on anything except math. But his sister Imogen claims that there is a way to reunite with their mother. But one day, Charlie discovers a portal in Imogen’s room that does indeed lead to a parallel world in which Mom is alive. But something doesn’t feel right, and Charlie gradually realizes that the time they spend with Mom is draining their energy and their memories. The book concludes with an exciting rescue mission in which Charlie and his friend Elliott must brave the sinister place that had previously seemed so comfortable in order to recover Imogen and another friend named Frank. This is a book about bravery, love, and loss, that has sad parts, heartwarming parts, scary parts, magical parts, realistic parts, and even a part that feels like science fiction. Essentially, it has something for everyone, and an awful lot for readers who like speculative fiction with real-world themes.

Pax by Sara Pennypacker, illustrated by Jon Klassen

Here’s another very popular book that leads to mixed opinions for me. It’s beautifully written and rich with meaning, metaphors, and motifs. But I just can’t talk myself into liking the way it ends. (And I don’t mean it doesn’t make me happy; I mean that it doesn’t tie up enough loose endings to have any effective message or to leave the reader with any afterthoughts other than annoyance at an unsatisfying ending.) I also don’t love the ambiguity of the setting, although I can accept that this might actually be a positive aspect for some readers. So my overall stance on this book is that it is high quality literature, but not quite my type. And I’m still not okay with that ending. As such, I’m including it on this list, but it’s not one that I would be excited to see win major awards.

The Secret Keepers by Trenton Lee Stewart

2016-secret-keepersWhen I heard that Stewart (author of The Mysterious Benedict Society) was coming out with a new book this year, I knew it was one I didn’t want to miss. The Secret Keepers did not disappoint. It’s a complex mystery as well as an exciting adventure with science fiction/ fantasy aspects, featuring a boy who finds a special watch, which is being sought by the sinister and mysterious authorities of his sort-of-but-not-really dystopian city. (It’s 501 pages, by the way, and not a line of that is unnecessary or redundant. I did say it’s complex.) It is worth acknowledging that this is a book with a very specific and narrow target audience. It’s a good book for those kinds of precocious kids who can spend hours on end completely engrossed in a book, who are such avid and skilled readers that nothing is really a challenge for them, and who prefer the fantastical to the realistic.

More Children’s Novels

Ms. Bixby’s Last Day by John David Anderson

The Nine Lives of Jacob Tibbs by Cylin Busby 

Summerlost by Ally Condie

Counting Thyme by Melanie Conklin

Ruby Lee & Me by Shannon Hitchcock

The Door by the Staircase by Katherine Marsh 

The Seventh Wish by Kate Messner

Novels in Verse

Booked by Kwame Alexander 

Fans of Alexander’s Newbery winner Crossover from two years ago will also like Alexander’s more recent book about Nick Hall, an eighth grade boy who loves soccer, knows way too many obscure words thanks to his linguist father, and has a crush on a girl named April. Nick and his best friend Coby are on different soccer teams, but both teams have been invited to compete in the Dallas Cup. But before then, Nick’s life falls apart when his parents announce that they’re separating. The variety of subplots (bullies, school assignments, a medical emergency, etc.) gives this book appeal factors for readers who aren’t particularly interested in sports stories. This book ideal for kids close to Nick’s age or a little younger, but some readers outside of that age range will also like it.

Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life  by Ashley Bryan 

This book could fall into multiple categories; it’s a picture book, it’s poetry, and it’s sort of both historical fiction and nonfiction. It’s short enough that I suppose it’s a stretch to call it a novel in verse, but I really do think that it deserves credit for its verse. Inspired by an 1828 document listing eleven slaves for sale, Bryan hypothesizes about their relationships to each other, their skills and duties, and their dreams for the future.

Unbound by Ann E. Burg

2016-unboundThis is another one about slavery, set a few decades later. Grace has been summoned to work in the big house, which brings a whole new set of responsibilities and dangers. Grace struggles to keep her mouth shut about the injustices and cruelty that the slaves face, and after she gets in trouble for vocalizing her “rightiness voice”, she and her family must run away into the swamp. The Great Dismal Swamp is a real place in Virginia and North Carolina where some (perhaps many) runaway slaves did hide. This book is about the hardships of slavery and the moral dilemmas that arise when one doesn’t have the freedom to do what they know is right, but it’s also a look into a historical facet that isn’t often discussed.

Moo by Sharon Creech

I have to admit that I actually haven’t been much of a fan of Creech’s works in the past. There’s something I used to  find unappealing in her writing style and the way the format of her verse varies. But I didn’t mind it in this book. In fact, I really enjoyed immersing myself in the story of a friendship developing between the city kids who have just moved to rural Maine, the scary Mrs. Falala, and her belligerent cow Zora. The plot is pretty predictable, but it’s a sweet story with excellent characterization, so it’s worth a read.

YA Novels

Maybe a Fox by Kathi Appelt and Alison McGhee 

Like several of my favorite YA books of 2016, this one is geared towards the younger side of that demographic. I initially considered it a children’s book because the protagonist is eleven and it’s not a very long book. But the emotional depth and the intellectual aspect of the themes and motifs put it more in the realm of middle-school books. Don’t get me wrong, a nine- or ten-year-old could certainly handle this book and enjoy it, (as long as he or she is okay with tear-jerkers) but I can’t quite bring myself to call it children’s literature. It’s about death, grief, love, and connections. And although it’s almost realistic fiction, it has speculative and spiritual elements, which gives it a magic touch that’s more poignant than actual fantasy stories.

Hour of the Bees by Lindsay Eager 

This is another one with a preteen protagonist, and it’s another one that’s almost but not quite realistic fiction. (I would describe it as magical realism, a subgenre that has lately become very common in YA novels.) Carol is not at all happy to be spending her summer on an isolated ranch, helping her parents move her cantankerous grandfather into assisted living against his will. But she does come to enjoy her grandfather’s stories about a magic tree, the bees who keep it alive, and the adventurous young woman who brought it all to an end. Over the course of the book, Carol learns a lot about the history of her family, which is largely defined by an ongoing conflict between the need to honor and rely upon one’s roots and the need to branch out and see what else is out there. It’s fitting and clever that the tree is a significant “character” in the plot.

The Gallery by Laura Marx Fitzgerald

2016-the-galleryWhen it comes to YA literature, most of the books that I love most are books that have intellectual or philosophical themes, books that keep the reader thinking about the point of the story long after they’ve finished it. This isn’t one of those. I certainly could find things to say about The Gallery’s discussion of social issues, about power and how dangerous it is in the wrong hands, or about the theme of secrecy, lies, and cover-ups. I also love that it is set in the 1920’s, a time period that I think is under-represented in literature for young people. But the real reason I like this book is simply that it’s exciting and fascinating. It tells the story of a spunky twelve-year old named Martha O’Doyle as she begins working alongside her mother as an employee of J. Archer Sewell. The wealthy newspaper magnate’s mysterious wife is an invalid, suffering from an illness of the mind. But Martha begins to suspect that Mrs. Sewell is being confined against her will and is attempting to convey secret messages. When Martha resolves to help her, mystery and adventure lies in store.

Up to this Pointe by Jennifer Longo 

Of the books I’m listing here, this is one of the few that hasn’t really attracted a lot of attention and critical acclaim. The reviews were positive and it has good ratings on amazon and goodreads, but it hasn’t shown up on review journals’ Best of the Year lists, and only one of the six review journals that matter most gave it a starred review. (I spent way too much time verifying that.) But I found it interesting, meaningful, and well-written enough that it stuck in my mind as a best-of-the-year contender from when it came out in January until now. I might be biased because I relate so much to Harper, the main character– not just because she loves ballet, and not just because she feels like a failure for not being a better dancer, but because of personality traits and emotions. Although, unlike Harper, I didn’t cope with life’s disappointments by running away to Antarctica. The novel alternates between “before” chapters in San Francisco and “after” chapters in Antarctica, describing Harper’s literal and metaphorical journey to find a sense of identity and purpose after falling short of her uncompromisable Plan-with-a-capital-P. (Note: I also tend to be biased towards books with Star Wars references. Not gonna lie, this book had me wrapped around its finger as soon as I saw that it involved both ballet and Star Wars.)

Burn Baby Burn by Meg Medina

It’s 1977 in New York, and Nora is a senior in high school. But school isn’t one of the first things on her mind, not when there’s a serial killer out there somewhere and a cute new guy at work and family problems at home. Nora’s brother Hector is aggressive and cruel, (not to mention that he’s probably caught up in illegal activities) and their mother is powerless to control either her son or her family’s finances. Nora is looking forward to moving out on her own, but first she has to navigate through this hot, violent summer. This novel is realistic fiction, and it uses a real time and place and real events to discuss the uncertainties, dangers, and emotions of real life, but it also has suspense and intrigue characteristic of a mystery or adventure. Serial killers and borderline-criminal siblings can do that to a story. (By the way, no, the serial killer and the brother do not turn out to be the same person.) Already having been put on the National Book Award longlist, this book also might be a major contender for the Printz and/or Pura Belpre.

Wolf Hollow  by Lauren Wolk 

Wolf HollowThis is a story about lies and secrets, about hiding and being trapped, about blame and trust, about right and wrong. It’s a story where every seemingly random scene or anecdote is important, where every character is a major character, and where the action doesn’t have to slow down to make room for beautiful writing. It’s a book where the heroine is brave, kind-hearted, and innocent (but yet very realistic and believable) and faces difficult and dangerous dilemmas. In short, this novel is literature at its finest. If I had to choose just one book to name as the best of 2016, this would be it. It’s 1943, and Annabelle is a twelve-year-old in a small, rural Pennsylvania town. Her quiet life is turned upside down when Betty Glenberry comes to town. Betty bullies Annabelle and demonstrates such callous cruelty that, after a thrown rock injures a classmate, Annabelle immediately suspects Betty. But Betty accuses Toby, an eccentric World War I veteran who is friends with Annabelle’s family. Annabelle knows that Toby is innocent, but evidence is stacking up against him, and she can only defend and protect him by breaking rules and keeping dangerous secrets. I would strongly recommend this book to preteens, teens, and adults.

The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon 

This teen romance is one of the most popular young adult books of the year; I think it’s safe to say that it’s the most popular contemporary realistic fiction young adult book of the year. Even if you, like me, feel that contemporary realistic fiction teen romances are usually more or less the same, this one is worth a little more attention. Jamaican-born Natasha is about to be deported, and Daniel, a Korean American boy born and raised in New York, is about to interview for a recommendation for admission to Yale. For her, it’s the worst day ever. For him, it’s just another episode in the ongoing family drama of high expectations. But when they cross paths, it becomes a very important moment in both of their lives. Daniel is immediately smitten while Natasha takes some convincing, but by the end of the day, they are officially in love. The voice and perspective jumps between Natasha, Daniel, and an omniscient narrator who offers background information about secondary characters, relevant historical or scientific trivia, and details about the series of events that made this particular day turn out the way it did. Most plot summaries I’ve seen make this book sound like a fairly stereotypical pairing of Natasha’s scientific and factual mindset and Daniel’s romanticized ideals. That’s definitely a major aspect of the plot, but there’s so much more to this book. It’s also about family dynamics, race relations, and the costs and benefits of following your dreams. Perhaps most of all, it’s a creative reminder that there are an infinite number of possible futures, and every small choice or minor event plays a role in determining which one will happen.

Non-Fiction

Just a Lucky So and So: The Story of Louis Armstrong by Lesa Cline- Ransome, illustrated by James Ransome 

pb just a lucky so and soThis beautiful picture-book biography describes the childhood and early career of the iconic jazz musician Louis Armstrong. Although the book acknowledges the poverty and petty crimes that played such a large role in Armstrong’s early life, it focuses on his lifelong love for music and has a cheerful tone. The text is just stylized enough to have a musical quality; Booklist describes it as snappy and The Horn Book compares the “short bursts of text” to jazz riffs. And then there are the illustrations. Colorful, bright, and happy, they complement the text and set the mood. I recommend this book for elementary-school-aged children, although it will be a light read for children at the older side of that range.

The Darkest Dark by Chris Hadfield and Kate Fillion, illustrated by Terry and Eric Fan

Astronaut Chris Hadfield looks back at one historic weekend in his childhood. At first, this looks like a fairly typical picture book about a boy who likes to play astronaut, but who is afraid of the dark. But then he watches the first moon landing on television and gets to see actual astronauts in outer space, and after this, his dreams overcome his fears. I enjoyed the playful and humorous tone of the beginning of the book, as well as the lovely ink and graphite illustrations, but what really sold me on this book is that it’s a true story. Chris isn’t just a protagonist created to teach kids a feel-good message; he’s an actual person who actually achieved his dreams.

March: Book Three by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell 

march-book-threeYes, this is a Best Book of 2016 in two different categories. In addition to being a great graphic novel, it’s a quality nonfiction book about historically significant events. There are lots of wonderful historical fiction books about the Civil Rights movement, but this book gives a different– and 100 % factual– perspective, since the primary author was involved in organizing significant events in the movement. One benefit of the graphic novel format is that this book is accessible to a wide range of ages. My library actually has it in the adult collection, but this book has usually been classified as a YA book and even won the National Book Award for Young People’s literature. Many middle-graders could also read and appreciate this book. Regardless of age, most readers will learn a lot about the famous Freedom Summer of 1964, and about the politics and disagreements within the Civil Rights movement.

The First Step: How One Girl Put Segregation on Trial by Susan E. Goodman, illustrated by E. B. Lewis 

Most of us are familiar with the controversy and animosity surrounding the desegregation of schools in the 1950’s and 1960’s. We’ve heard about Brown vs. Board of Education and the Little Rock Nine, and we understand that segregation was a widespread issue. But this book begins before all of that. This book starts with the story of Sarah Roberts, a girl who started school in Boston in 1847, years before the Civil War. Sarah initially attended a school that wasn’t supposed to teach black students, and it didn’t take long before she was forced to switch to a school much farther away, with an inferior curriculum and only one book. That wasn’t what her parents wanted for her. It took two years for the case to go to court, and the Roberts’ and their lawyers lost in the end. The last few pages skip ahead to Linda Brown, an eight-year-old girl in the same situation a century later, who won her case and effectively ended segregation in schools. This may be a picture book, (a beautifully illustrated one, by the way) and it may be relatively short, but it’s an excellent way to introduce these topics to children in first through third grade.

Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story by Carol Stelson 

This National Book Award semi-finalist wasn’t on my radar until then and hasn’t received a lot of attention aside from that, but it is an excellent book. In fact, I would go as far as to say that it’s an essential read for anyone with a particular interest in WWII Japan and a beneficial read for everyone. Sachiko Yasui, the central figure and primary informant for this book, was only six years old when she experienced the explosion that demolished her home and killed the four children that she’d been playing with moments before. Her story isn’t so much about the military events of WWII as it is about growing up in a country, community, and family that is rebuilding itself and looking for hope while still struggling with the long-term effects of the war. The atomic bomb continued to kill people long after the day it fell on Nagasaki; effects of radiation such as many types of cancer continued to show up years after the war was over. Sachiko lost most of her family to the atomic bombing, and she herself experienced emotional hardships and later, thyroid cancer that wasn’t resolved until she was an adult. But this book isn’t all about radiation sickness and loss; it’s also about people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Helen Keller who inspired Sachiko, and about hope and regrowth. This book can be appreciated by preteens, teens, and adults alike.

Year of the Fox

I can’t take credit for declaring 2016 the year of the fox. (In terms of children’s literature, that is.) I know I’ve seen that phrase floating around on Goodreads and on various blogs, but I have no idea who said it first. Or maybe, we all noticed at the same time that there have been an awful lot of fox books this year and started commenting about it simultaneously. Really, Pax is the most noteworthy fox book of the year, and I think it’s the reason that children’s lit readers are particularly attuned to fox books this year. Nonetheless, as the year approaches its end, I think now would be a good time to take a look back at all the 2016 fox books I’ve read and enjoyed (or not).

yotf-maybe-a-foxMaybe a Fox by Kathi Appelt and Alison McGhee

I read this novel all at once late one night last spring, and it was a whirlwind of words and vicarious emotions. Twelve-year-old Sylvie and eleven-year-old Jules are sisters and best of friends. Tragedy strikes one morning when Sylvie runs off to throw a wish rock in the river and never comes back. Jules can’t believe that Sylvie is gone, and she struggles to cope with the loss. The narrative switches back and forth between Jules and a young fox who has been born a kennen, (An animal whose purpose is to help a human) and evidently either has Sylvie’s spirit or has some kind of connection to her. As a significant subplot, Jules gradually begins communicating with her friend’s older brother who fought in Afghanistan and lost his best friend. In addition to the emotion, the beautifully written prose, and the pacing that is just perfect for keeping the reader engrossed, this book can also claim a lot of literary value for its use of recurring themes and motifs. (The significance of stones, the need to run fast, etc.)

 

The Fox Who Ate Books by Franziska Biermann, translated by Shelley Tanaka

For the sake of variety, I’m including this recently published translation of a 2015 German book. But I have to admit that I don’t find it a particularly noteworthy book. The plot is complicated and feels disorganized, and the humor of the basic premise isn’t quite entertaining enough to keep the reader engaged throughout this fairly wordy story.  The bright, simple, two-dimensional illustrations seem to be targeted at a completely different age level than the text. And the end is not satisfying, surprising, or funny.

The Christmas Fox by Anik McGrory

This holiday-themed picture book may not be making headlines, but its playful take on the nativity scene and its loveable, frisky protagonist still give it some pretty significant appeal factors. The text is brief enough that the soft illustrations are the real focus of the book. My favorite page is the one where the fox is splashing in the stream. Personally, I have some theological qualms about portraying baby Jesus as the recipient of Christmas gifts rather than the gift Himself, but we’ll give this book a pass on that. Its basic message is no different than that of The Little Drummer Boy, which is widely considered a classic Christmas song and movie.

PaxPax by Sara Pennypacker

One of the most popular middle-grade novels of 2016, this book has achieved multiple starred reviews and was on the National Book Award longlist, as well as accumulating many, many glowing reviews on amazon, goodreads, and blogs. Some have speculated that it is likely to win the Newbery medal. I actually didn’t love it. At least not quite as much as I loved certain other 2016 middle-grade books. You can read my initial Pax post here. I also wrote about it in my post about the National Book Award contenders. This is a book that I will be revisiting as I compile my annual best-of-the-year list.

Fox and the Jumping Contest by Corey R. Tabor

This is another picture book that hasn’t received much attention, and is unlikely to become a beloved favorite or a time-tested classic, but it’s silly and entertaining and a good choice for the occasional preschool storytime. The title more or less sums up the plot— I suppose Fox Uses a Jetpack in the Jumping Contest would be a bit more descriptive—but if you really want to know how the story ends, let’s just say that everyone’s happy and there’s no moral. No moral, but plenty of fun.

yotf-faraway-foxFaraway Fox by Jolene Thompson, illustrated by Justin K. Thompson

I included this title in my latest list of picture books. It’s one of thirty-four picture books that I’m considering for my list of the best books of 2016, and while I don’t know whether it’ll actually make my list, it’s a book well worth reading if you or your child is interested in foxes, animal habitats, ecology, or cute woodland creatures in general. Both the almost-but-not-quite realistic artwork and the concise text are beautiful and have a surprising degree of emotional depth considering the simplicity of the story.

Fall 2016 Picture Books

It’s been a while since I’ve posted a list of relatively recent picture books that I’ve read lately, and for that reason, I had to limit this list to just the really, really great ones. In fact, there are a few books that have received a lot of critical acclaim that I left out because I just didn’t love them that much. (Most notably, We Found a Hat and Du Iz Tak?) I ended up including nineteen, all of which were published this year and most of which were published in the fall or late summer.

 

Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts, 2016

From the author and illustrator of Iggy Peck, Architect and Rosie Revere, Engineer comes this new book celebrating girls who excel in STEM fields. The story begins in Ada’s infancy and ends in an incident when she, as a second grader, gets in trouble for experimenting on the cat. The rhyming text is catchy and appealing. This is definitely not an ideal book for library storytimes, since it’s wordy for a picture book, but I would recommend it for kindergartners or first graders, either as an educational book or as a fun, quick read for kids who like learning about science.

 

Leave Me Alone! By Vera Brosgol, 2016

What is an old woman to do when her very big family won’t let her get her knitting done? She goes out to the forest, of course. But the bears in the forest are just as much of a nuisance as her grandchildren. As it happens, so are the goats on the mountain and the little green men on the moon. At last, the old woman finds peace and quiet in the void on the other side of a wormhole. In a predictable yet satisfying ending, she finishes her knitting, gets lonely, and returns home to give newly knitted sweaters to her very big family. (I counted thirty grandchildren, by the way) Young readers will love the simple, repetitive story, all the more so for its bizarre transition from a cutesy folk-style-tale to a science fiction story. The art is great, too; it’s bright and simple enough to make for an excellent storytime book.

 

pb-freedom-over-meFreedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life by Ashley Bryan, 2016

This three-time Coretta Scott King Award winner has in his possession some documents from the early nineteenth century that concern slavery. In creating this book, he selected one such document, an appraisement of estate from 1828, and imagined the life stories, personalities, and thoughts of the eleven slaves listed to be sold. Written in free verse, this book is best suited for an elementary-school-aged reader and is best described as historical fiction. The author’s note at the end explains that the purpose of the book is to “bring the slaves alive as human beings”, an objective that, in my opinion, is well achieved. The artwork is highly stylized and uses photocopies of actual historical deeds as background. The overall effect is artistic and eye-catching, although again, more appealing to older readers than to the usual target audience for picture books. This is a book that I would consider to be a contender for a number of different major awards.

 

Up by Joe Cepeda, 2016

This book has thirteen unique words—twenty-seven words total—and none of them are more than one syllable. Yet it does tell a complete story about a boy who uses a toy pinwheel to fly out of his bedroom window one window morning. Granted, the details are in the pictures, not in the words. But still, it has an appeal factor that’s hard to achieve with such a limited vocabulary, and I would gladly recommend it to a child who is just barely ready to start reading words. I also like the pictures. The digitally-created artwork has a watercolor quality to it, but with much more vibrant colors and clearly defined borders. If that makes any sense.

 

Beauty and the Beast as retold by Mahlon F. Craft, illustrated by Kinuko Y. Craft, 2016

As is common for folk and fairy tales published in picture book format, this book has much more text and is written at a higher reading level than other picture books. I would recommend it to school-age children who can read independently. Although the title page and book jacket cite Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beamont’s 1756 version of the story, the author’s note adds that other retellings were also used as sources. But, as is often the case for retellings of popular fairy tales, the artwork is what makes this book stand out. They are oil-over-watercolor paintings, lifelike and intricate and ethereal. Children with a strong appreciation for art could spend much time enjoying the details of Craft’s illustrations.

 

Billions of Bricks by Kurt Cyrus, 2016

Children’s picture books about construction tend to be fairly popular. This book may be a little different in that it’s not about anthropomorphic construction vehicles, but I think it very much deserves the fan base that it’s likely to attract. It’s a counting book and a rhyming book, but mostly, it’s about building things, and kids will enjoy watching the illustrations progress from a small stack of bricks to huge, elaborate brick buildings. It’s short enough to read during a library storytime, but it’s also a book that many kids will enjoy reading over and over again at home.

 

pb-coyote-moonCoyote Moon by Maria Gianferrari, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline, 2016

This picture book features concise but descriptive text about a mother coyote prowling through a suburban neighborhood, looking for prey to feed her family. Although it is written as a story, the “coyote facts” double-page at the end, and the informational value of the simple plot make this book technically function as nonfiction. But the real selling point is the illustration. Ibatoulline’s gorgeous paintings are realistic, detailed, and masterful in their use of light, shadows, and the perspective, which is different on every page. I don’t normally like to use the word “breathtaking” to describe books, but I think I literally held my breath while reading this book. If I have anything less than celebratory to say about this book, it’s that the text seems to be geared towards a younger audience than the pictures. The text is brief and simple enough for preschoolers, but children at that age generally prefer brighter colors than what they’ll see in this nocturnal book. But I don’t necessarily see that as a problem, because even big kids and grown-ups can appreciate a short, simple book sometimes.

 

The Kraken’s Rules for Making Friends by Brittany R. Jacobs, 2016

As it so happens, Brittany R. Jacobs is my coworker. But this book was on my radar before Brittany started the job, and I didn’t happen to notice the author’s name and make the connection. The title alone struck me as something unique and interesting because I feel like there aren’t that many children’s picture books about the Kraken. (Although a quick Google search reveals that this isn’t the very first) Since then, I have of course gone and purchased the book on Amazon. (Note to self: Take it to work. Ask Brittany to sign it. Get another copy for my cousin’s kids for Christmas. Ask Brittany to sign that, too.) It’s definitely a book worth owning. It’s funny, cheerful, short enough for young children, intelligent enough for early grade-school children, and it has a shark. And a Kraken.

 

pb-chicken-in-spaceChicken in Space by Adam Lehrhaupt, illustrated by Shahar Kober, 2016

I discovered this book while searching for stories appropriate for storytime on Star Wars Day, which my library celebrates in early October. No, Chicken in Space doesn’t have anything to do with Star Wars, but it’s about space travel, so it fits the bill. And it’s an absolutely brilliant book in its own right. It tells the story of Zoey, an ambitious chicken, who dreams of flying into space. Despite all the challenges, (such as the fact that she doesn’t have a spaceship) she and her friend Sam, a pig with a penchant for pie, do manage to eventually get off the ground and brave the dangers of an asteroid (actually a baseball) and an alien attack (actually a flock of birds) before returning safely home. Yes, it’s just one more of many books about the power of imagination, but its original, likable characters and entertaining dialogue make it memorable and extra fun.

 

Tek: The Modern Cave Boy by Patrick McDonnell, 2016

I’m not typically the biggest fan of books about the evils of technology. But this one is clever enough to make me overlook the overly simplistic plot and the condescending message. The first thing a reader will notice about this book is that it looks like an iPad, complete with the little icons showing wifi signal and battery power. (The battery power progressively decreases, a fun detail that I didn’t notice the first time through.) The jokes in the text will appeal to early school-age kids, who will find it hilarious that Tek’s dad invented the internet before discovering fire. My favorite bit of humor in this book is the phrase “a Flying Idontgiveadactyl”. Although it’s technically a picture book, I would recommend this for young independent readers.

 

A Voyage in the Clouds: The (Mostly) True Story of the First International Flight by Balloon in 1785 by Matthew Olshan, illustrated by Sophie Blackall, 2016

On January 7, 1785, Dr. John Jeffries of England and pilot Jean-Pierre Blanchard of France, set off on a balloon ride across the English channel. As indicated in the book’s subtitle, it was to be the first flight to cross national borders. Unfortunately, the two men were bitter rivals. Closely based on historical events as described by Jeffries later that year, this book recounts the near-disaster that forced the two to work together. Like many historical picture books, this book is best suited for readers in first or second grade. (Readers of that age demographic will find this book hilarious, not only for the petty bickering between the two men, but for the important role that “pee” plays in the story.) I’d love to see it show up on readers’ choice awards for elementary-school-aged children next year.

 

Little Bot and Sparrow by Jake Parker, 2016

Although this is a picture book rather than a middle-grade novel, it reminded me quite a bit of The Wild Robot—and I think I like this one better. After being thrown away with the garbage, Little Bot meets Sparrow, who teaches him a variety of life lessons before flying away for the winter. Although the ending is anticlimactic, it’s a sweet story and beautifully illustrated. Little Bot’s face seems to be specifically designed to look cute and likable, and the flora and fauna is fairly realistic-looking. I love the colors on the page that depicts autumn. This book will fit into a variety of storytime themes; since it takes place over the course of a year, it’s a great book about the seasons, and it’s technically both a nature book and a science fiction book.

 

The Mixed-Up Truck by Stephen Savage, 2016

This fun picture book about a cement mixer’s first day on the job came to my attention in September thanks to a program that involved a cement-mixer craft. This is an excellent storytime book. It features bright, cheerful illustrations of anthropomorphized construction vehicles, (who could have imagined that a cement mixer could be so cute?) it’s relatively short with a repetitive structure, and it is humorous. After being told to get some powdery white cement, the cement mixer mistakenly goes first to a flour factory and then to a sugar factory and accidentally makes a giant cake before finally getting it right on his third trip. On an irrelevant side note, I actually messed this book up the first time I read it. I had it in my head that the cement mixer was trying to make a road, not a building, so I believed (and actually told the kids) that he was still mixed up on that third trip, thereby proving that my narrative skills are underdeveloped and I need to go back to preschool.

 

pb-before-morningBefore Morning by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Beth Krommes, 2016

This beautiful picture book doesn’t have many words, but the brief request for a nighttime snowfall is somehow eloquent and poetic. The scratchboard and watercolor artwork likewise manages to encompass both simplicity and elaborate detail. This is fitting, considering that the appeal of the snowfall is that it makes everything “slow and delightful and white”. As much as I love this book, I’d have to say that it’s actually probably more enjoyable for adults than for young children. For an adult who loves picture books, this particular book is full of meaning and nostalgia, and has fascinating sub-themes and motifs tucked into the illustrations. (Transportation, especially airplanes! Old-fashioned vs. new! Animals! Angels!) But to most children, this is just a book about wishing for snow. However, I can imagine an adult and a child having endless fun reading this book and examining the illustrations together. (Let’s count everything that can fly! The geese are flying, the airplanes can fly, and does the falling snow count? Let’s count all the kinds of transportation! Cars, airplanes, horse-carriage, snowplows… do sleds count?)

 

Samson in the Snow by Philip C. Stead, 2016

I have mixed feelings about this book. I found the dialogue to be a little stilted, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing in books intended for very young children. The story is sweet, but not unique and noteworthy. (Although the woolly mammoth protagonist sets this apart from most other sweet books about animals being nice to each other.) The artwork is the deciding factor that made me decide that I do in fact like this book quite a bit. The shape of the snowflakes, the texture of Samson’s fur, and the colors and patterns used for the sky and snow make this book one that a child can enjoy looking at, with or without the story. I would recommend it as a read-aloud at home for a preschool-aged child, although it’s too long to be used in a library storytime.

 

Faraway Fox by Jolene Thompson, illustrated by Justin K. Thompson, 2016

Fox is separated from his family. While the beautifully sad illustrations show poor, dejected Fox wandering through a residential neighborhood, the text describes his forest life in a stream-of-consciousness manner. In the end, Fox stumbles across a tunnel that leads him back to his forest and his family. The final illustration, showing seven bright-eyed, perky-eared foxes happy to see one another, will change the minds of anyone who might previously have felt that this story was “too sad”. The author’s note on the final page makes it clear that this book was written largely to promote the construction of wildlife crossings, including tunnels under highways like the one that brought Fox home. But somehow, this book doesn’t feel as preachy as most books about wildlife conservation do. I found Fox to be such a likable character that, for me, this was still an enjoyable fictional picture book as well as a message about preserving animal habitats.

 

The Storyteller by Evan Turk, 2016

I was a little unclear as to whether this story is a Moroccan folk tale or an original story by Turk, and for me, that ambiguity detracted a little from the value of the book. Although the author’s note doesn’t answer my question, a little background research reveals that the story is in fact original, but was inspired by what the author saw in trips to Morocco, and makes use of local artistic techniques and styles. The artwork in this book is definitely beautiful and unique. I would not at all be disappointed to see this book win the Caldecott. My one complaint is that the plot seemed very complex and a little hard to follow. If the text was a little less concise, that would have helped. But I loved the emphasis on the art of storytelling and the implied parallel between water and oral tradition. This is not a preschool storytime book, but it’s a great picture book for school-aged independent readers.

 

pb-they-all-saw-a-catThey All Saw a Cat by Brenden Wenzel, 2016

I knew I had to get my hands on this book because it’s been getting a lot of positive attention. The fact that I’m a crazy cat lady played a very small role in my anticipation of reading this book. Really. At a first glance, I admit I was actually a little disappointed. The text’s brevity and repetitive nature make it a great book for reading aloud to toddlers, but nothing about it struck me as unique and distinctive. But the more I think about it, the more appreciation I can muster for the use of perspective in the artwork. (Which is really the whole point of the book) Not only does every character view the cat from a different vantage point, but the artistic style and medium changes from page to page. The publisher’s summary includes the phrase “rhythmic prose and stylized pictures”, and that’s probably the best way to describe this book. It’s definitely a good book and worthy of a place in library storytimes and the homes of young children. As a side note, I’m just now noticing the dedication. I do not in fact know Brenden Wenzel, so I am not the Magdalena to whom this book is dedicated, but we’ll call it my book anyway, okay?

 

Nanette’s Baguette by Mo Willems, 2016

Rounding out this list, we have the newest book by Mo Willems, who probably couldn’t write a less-than-wonderful children’s book if he tried. (Okay, I personally didn’t love the Knuffle Bunny books – but a lot of people did.) This picture book plays with rhyme in a way that is both humorous and educational. (For toddlers and preschoolers, playing with rhyming words can help to build a lot of skills that will serve them well when they are learning to read.) Although the repetition of the –et word ending is probably the most memorable element of the book, the plot itself is both humorous and emotive. Even the artwork is distinctive. The backgrounds of the illustrations are photographs of cardboard constructions, giving a sense of depth to the otherwise cartoonish, two-dimensional images. All in all, this is a great book that I can’t wait to use in a storytime.

Opinions on the National Book Award Nominees

Back in September, when the National Book Foundation released the longlists for the 2016 National Book Awards, I tasked myself with the lofty goal of reading all ten nominees for the Young People’s Literature award before the shortlist was announced. At this, I failed dismally. It didn’t help that The Sun is Also a Star wasn’t even released until November 1. I really need to work on setting more realistic goals. Even now, just a few hours before the winner is to be announced, I have only read eight of the ten. (Plus the first few chapters of a ninth) But this will not stop me from inflicting my opinions on you.

 

Booked by Kwame Alexander, 2016

I read this and blogged about it long before I was thinking about the National Book Award. You can see my original blog post here. Admittedly, I have not revisited the book to compare it to the other nominees, but I’m sticking with my original opinion that it’s good, but not quite award material. The judges evidently agree with me, because this book did not make the shortlist and is therefore no longer in the running for the award.

 

Raymie NightingaleRaymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo, 2016

This is another one that I had already read, and I blogged about it here. It’s a good book. It has memorable characters, an interesting plot, an appealing writing style, and enough nuances to stand up to quite a bit of analysis and discussion. Although I’ve come across a few 2016 books that I think are more significant contributions to young people’s literature by an infinitesimal margin, this is my top pick for the National Book Award.

 

march-book-threeMarch: Book Three by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell, 2016

This graphic novel completes a nonfiction trilogy about the Civil Rights Movement as experienced by the author, an activist who played a major role in several different events of the movement. I love the fact that someone who is so historically significant (and still working for the people of our country as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives) decided to tell his story in the form of graphic novels. Over the past generation or so, graphic novels have branched out into a variety of genres and topics and have proved that they aren’t necessarily inferior to “normal” books, but the March books still deserve attention as an especially informative graphic novel series. Not only do they manage to include quite a lot of facts and dates and numbers, but they do an excellent job of conveying the emotions and personalities of the people they portray. My main reasons for cheering for Raymie Nightingale over March are that 1) this book does strike me as being a little dry when compared to middle-grade novels, and 2) I feel that it’s much more meaningful as part of the series than as a standalone book, and the award is just for the individual book. This would be my second choice.

 

when-the-sea-turned-to-silverWhen the Sea Turned to Silver by Grace Lin, 2016

I can’t quite explain why this book just didn’t do a good job of keeping my interest. The basic plot was interesting, there was nothing lacking in the characterization, and there was a twist near the ending that brought together several elements from earlier in the book, which is something that I always like in a novel. I asked myself whether maybe the aspect that I didn’t quite like was the fragmentation. (The book includes many folk stories interspersed throughout the text, which do break up the flow of the story just a little, even though it’s the main characters who are telling the shorter stories.) But I’ve liked fragmentation in other books. The best explanation I can give is that the writing style and the plot didn’t quite seem to work well together. According to my reading preferences, a historical-fantasy-adventure like this would be more interesting if it were told in a more dramatic fashion, but this tale is told in a calm, even-paced manner. That was probably done intentionally to reflect the folklore tradition from which many of the motifs and subplots come. So I can accept that my ambivalence towards this book is a matter of personal opinion, and that it may very well be an excellent, award-worthy book from a more objective or collective viewpoint. It is one of the five finalists, so it could be the winner of the National Book Award.

 

When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore, 2016

This is the one that I’m reading now, and I’m not far along enough to give an accurate plot description or to have formed an opinion about it. It’s clear from the very beginning that it’s magical realism; that is, it’s set in the real world, but it has elements of fantasy that are presented as if they’re believable, even normal. The main characters are Sam and Miel, also known as Moon and Honey. They have been best friends since childhood, when Miel mysteriously appeared in the water that spilled out of an old water tower. Miel is an unusual girl who has roses growing from her wrists and who has a phobia of pumpkins, but she’s not quite as odd as the four Bonner girls, believed to be witches. The plot summary on the book jacket suggests that the main conflict in the book is that the Bonner sisters want Miel’s roses. I’m enjoying this book so far, but it didn’t make the shortlist for the National Book Award.

 

Burn Baby Burn by Meg Medina, 2016

This was one of the first YA books of 2016 to attract my attention as A Book that I Have to Read. Somehow, though, I didn’t get around to reading it until this fall when it showed up on the National Book Award longlist. It didn’t make its way onto the shortlist, which means it’s no longer in the running, but I’m glad I read it and I’m expecting it to be a contender for the Printz when the ALA awards come around in January. It’s set in the spring and summer of 1977 in New York, a time and place characterized by arson, serial killings, and a blackout that led to massive looting. These events are described from the perspective of Nora Lopez, an almost-eighteen-year-old girl who has her own problems at home, mostly centering around her younger brother Hector. Meanwhile, Nora is finishing up high school, falling in love with the cute new guy at work, and trying to maintain her relationship with her long-time best friend Kathleen. The best trait of this book is the thorough and vivid description of the setting. It would be cliché to say that I could really see the peeling paint in Nora’s shabby apartment or feel the stifling heat that tormented New York that summer, but I can’t think of any better way to explain how this book draws the reader in. The serial killer element adds an element of suspense and mystery. Not gonna lie, after finishing this book, I stayed up quite late researching that true historical story online.

 

Pax by Sara Pennypacker, illustrated by Jon Klassen, 2016

You can read my initial review here. This is definitely a good book, but to be honest, I don’t feel that it deserves quite the degree of accolades that it has received, and I’m not disappointed that it didn’t make the National Book Award shortlist. In fact, I probably will be disappointed if it does win a major award such as the Newbery, not because I actually dislike it, but just because there are a number of contenders that I think are more interesting, more memorable, and more significant as contributions to children’s literature. Besides, Pax has a very unsatisfying ending. But I suppose that it’s a matter of opinion whether an unsatisfying ending is actually a negative trait in a book.

 

ghostGhost by Jason Reynolds, 2016

This book, intended as the first in a series, describes the experiences of a middle-school boy who has been recruited to join an elite track team. Even before receiving any training, he is an incredibly fast sprinter, which he attributes to his early childhood experience of running away from his violent father. Since then, Castle (known by the nickname Ghost) has been dealing with all of his problems by running away from them, at least figuratively. His new coach is determined not only to teach Ghost how to be the best sprinter he can be, but to teach him some life lessons. While this book does have the positive messages, complex characters, and down-to-earth tone that we’ve come to expect from author Jason Reynolds, it didn’t quite strike me as a unique or exceptional book. As much as I liked it, this would not be one of my top National Book Award picks. I’m undecided as to whether I’d rank it third or fourth of the four finalists that I have read.

 

Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story by Carol Stelson, 2016

The National Book Award nominees sometimes do include books that hadn’t gotten a lot of attention prior to their appearance on that longlist, and Sachiko is an example of this. I still haven’t been aware of it getting much notice from anyone besides the National Book Foundation. As the title implies, it’s the biography of a woman who experienced the atomic bomb that the U.S. military dropped on Nagasaki at the end of World War II. Although Sachiko (six years old when the bomb fell) and most of her family survived the initial blast, nearly everyone in her family eventually succumbed to radiation sickness or cancer caused by the radiation. Sachiko herself developed thyroid cancer as a young adult, but she survived thanks to a throat operation that led to a slow, frustrating recovery. In addition to describing Sachiko’s own experiences, the book includes contextual historical information about World War II, the atomic bomb, the aftermath of the war in Japan, and the backstories of Gandhi and Hellen Keller, figures that had a profound influence on Sachiko. The book is interesting, informative, and well-researched, so I would recommend it to readers who have an interest in any of the topics it touches, but I wouldn’t have really expected it to win a major award, so I am neither surprised nor disappointed that it wasn’t one of the five finalists.

 

the-sun-is-also-a-starThe Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon, 2016

Rounding out the Young People’s Literature longlist, we have the one that I haven’t even started yet, and since it also made the shortlist, I’m disappointed in myself for not getting to it yet. In my defense, I’ve had it on hold for a while and it just came in for me yesterday evening as I had already clocked out and was on my way out of the library. Obviously, I don’t have much of anything to say about it, although I know it’s a YA romance. I look forward to reading it and finding out what makes it special among other YA romance novels published this year.

The Inquisitor’s Tale

The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, the Three Magical Children and their Holy Dog by Adam Gidwitz, illuminated by Hatem Aly, 2016

Children’s novel for grades 5 and up; historical fiction, adventure

inquisitors-taleThis incredible novel draws from a variety of medieval legends, beliefs, writings, and actual historical figures and events to create a narrative that I would describe as the twenty-first century American child’s version of the Canterbury Tales. Set in France in 1242, the story consists of a series of “tales” told by various characters who have crossed paths at an inn, and who coincidentally all have inside knowledge about a group of children who are either saints or public enemies. The narrator listening to all of these stories learns about the children’s backgrounds (Jeanne is a peasant girl whose village has been accused of heresy because they venerate a dog, William is an uncommonly large and dark-skinned boy training to become a monk, and Jacob is a Jewish boy who has recently lost his home due to an act of arson) and how they all happened to be on the run from their homes when they met each other and decided to stick together. Although they initially have completely different objectives, their goals eventually converge into a mission to rescue Jewish books from burning by order of the king. They fail, and become outlaws in the attempt. At that point, the frame narrative and the children’s story come together as the children arrive at the inn and the narrator accompanies them from that point forward.

The above is such a brief summary that it doesn’t really do the book justice. I’ve skipped over some exciting chase scenes, a very entertaining encounter with a dragon, quite a number of thought-provoking conversations about theology and why life is like cheese, and some relatively important characters. You can take my word for it that this book has all of those things. Although it’s not a particularly difficult middle-grade read, it’s a very intellectual book that I would strongly recommend both for entertainment and for educational purposes. Since I’ve compared it to the Canterbury Tales, I should probably acknowledge that the narrative voices of the tale-tellers aren’t quite as distinct as in Chaucer, but considering that Chaucer’s work is a literary masterpiece that has stood up to five and a half centuries’ worth of academic discussion and analysis, I don’t think it’s a huge drawback for this book to fall just a little short of that standard.

As much as I enjoyed the story, I found it even more fascinating after reading the lengthy author’s note at the end and skimming the annotated bibliography. I could tell that the book was well-researched, and I knew that a few of the characters, such as King Louis and his mother Blanche, were real historical figures, but I didn’t realize just how thoroughly the story was based on medieval sources. I had guessed very quickly that Jeanne was inspired by Joan of Arc, but I didn’t realize that the holy greyhound Gwenforte really existed. (Although the real Gwenforte was a male dog and was actually named Guinefort, which just may possibly be the name of a future pet of mine) I didn’t know the tall tales that inspired William’s character, nor did I realize just how many of the characters were real historical people. I’d never heard of the quicksand surrounding Mont St. Michael and didn’t know that quicksand is so much more dangerous to horses and their riders than to people on foot. Even the comical scene with the farting dragon was an actual medieval story!

For what it’s worth, this book has earned a place on my best-of-2016 list and is currently one of my top two Newbery hopes. I don’t know why it hasn’t received more attention than it has and I hope to see it stand the test of time and become a classic.

All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook

All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook by Leslie Connor, 2016

Children’s novel for grades 5 and up; realistic fiction, mystery

 

perry-t-cookThe Blue River Correctional Facility is the only home that eleven-year-old Perry Cook has ever known. His mother Jessica is a “resident” there, incarcerated for manslaughter that happened before Perry was born. Although Jessica is eager for her release, Perry is content with his home in the prison. But everything changes when the district attorney hears about Perry’s living situation. The district attorney is Thomas VanLeer, who is also the stepfather of Perry’s best friend “on the outside”, his classmate Zoey Samuels. Although Perry’s situation is common knowledge in the small town of Surprise, Nebraska, Mr. VanLeer is new in the county and hadn’t heard about it until Zoey brings it up at the dinner table. But now, he has taken it upon himself to act as a foster parent to Perry. Not only is Perry’s life disrupted, but the prison warden is suspended for allowing Perry’s unorthodox upbringing and Jessica’s parole hearing is postponed. Meanwhile, Perry is starting a school assignment that leads him to interview Blue River’s residents, including his mother. Between those conversations, a couple coincidences, and a little snooping, Perry gradually pieces together the story of the accidental death that put his mother in prison.

I don’t know enough about the justice system and prison life to give a fair assessment of how believable the setup is. My guess is that it would be absolutely unthinkable for a child to live in a prison for eleven years before being discovered and put into foster care, and that more than a couple people would get in trouble for the situation. But aside from the unrealistic scenario, it’s hard to find much of any fault with this book. All right, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some people out there who consider it objectionable for its discussion of crime, its portrayal of convicted criminals as good people, some discussion of death and injury, and the fact that Jessica was an unmarried teen mom. Frankly, I don’t think that any of those things make this book inappropriate for middle schoolers. In fact, I think that it’s a positive thing for young readers to encounter tough subjects through literature before they have to face them in the real world. For an eleven- or twelve- year old whose life hasn’t been touched by the issues faced by Perry and his mom, this is an eye-opening book that will build understanding and empathy. For a child who can relate to parts of Perry’s story, it will be refreshing and reassuring to see these subjects touched in children’s literature.

Despite my overall high opinion of the book, I feel compelled to add that I didn’t find Perry to be a particularly believable character. He’s almost too wise beyond his years, too mild-mannered, too innocent and pure-hearted. I don’t mind that too much, though. The other characters—with the one exception of Thomas VanLeer—acknowledge and praise Perry’s demeanor and unusually perfect personality, and there is an implication throughout the book that his experiences being raised in a prison are what made him that way. Besides, there is noticeable character development in the sense that Perry becomes more outspoken and develops a more complicated sense of morality over the course of the book. His love for his mother, and his desires to spend time with her and seek justice for her, make him willing to disrespect VanLeer and bend rules at school. In fact, I think that the ambiguity of morality is one of the big messages of this book. Is Perry a better person when he’s behaving exactly as the adults tell him and ignoring classmates’ taunts, or when he’s bending rules? Is Jessica committing a crime or protecting a loved one by lying about what really happened on the night of her arrest? Does Warren Daughtery deserve to lose her job for allowing an incarcerated woman to raise her own son, or does she deserve to be commended for caring for Perry and Jessica the way she does? Are any of the terrible things VanLeer does actually morally wrong? And are people in jail really that much worse than those of us “on the outside”?