Best Books of 2017

This weekend, multiple committees are deliberating about which books will win several major awards, including the Newbery and Caldecott. (In case anyone needs the link to the livestream, here it is. You’re welcome.) Maybe I take my own opinion too seriously, but I felt compelled to get my Best of 2017 list out there before the actual awards are announced. To be honest, originally the idea was that my list would be ready to go on New Year’s Day, but it’s taken me weeks to pull this list together. There’s a fair amount of re-reading that goes into choosing my favorites. Like I said, I take this stuff seriously. But I admittedly didn’t spend nearly as much time or effort on actually writing this, so bear with me and ignore any typos or poor writing. Here are the books that made my final cut. (I’ve given myself a maximum of seven favorites per category, but I’ve also included runners-up for the picture books and middle grade novels.)

 

Picture Books

Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut by Derrick Barnes, illustrated by Gordon C. James

I have far too many things to say about this book to include them all here. The simplicity of the plot, the positive messages, the tone that is somehow both vernacular and poetic… And the illustrations are fascinating. I’ve just spent quite a bit of time looking very closely at them and wondering why people’s faces look so realistic and nuanced when the brushstrokes are so visible and so wide. This book is best suited for older readers than most picture books are; it’s written at about a second or third grade reading level and has appeal factors for a middle-grade audience. Personally, I think it’s also good for teens and adults, although it’s a pretty quick read.

 

All the Way to Havana by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Mike Curato

This book paints a picture of Cuban life that celebrates the people, the family relationships, and the inventive ways that they keep old cars running. The main character’s family owns an old blue Chevy that they call “Cara Cara,” because that’s one of the sounds she makes. Because it’s been in the family for multiple generations, Cara Cara has personality, and it’s a likable one at that. This picture book would make a great next-step-up for kids who have enjoyed preschool-level books about vehicles. Of course, it also has a multicultural appeal factor, and the art is beautiful. I’d recommend it to kids around seven to nine years old to read independently, or to teachers to read aloud to classes from Kindergarten to about second grade.

 

Little Wolf’s First Howling by Laura McGee Kvasnosky and Kate Harvey McGee

Little Wolf's First HowlingHere we’re moving on to a picture book that does work as a read-aloud for preschoolers. It’s not as short as most storytime-appropriate books, but it has a simple and fun plot, pictures that can be seen clearly from several feet away, and silly noises. The humor is just right for kids who are just barely old enough to know what sound wolves are supposed to make. Little Wolf’s incorrect howling is repeated frequently throughout the book, but it’s a joke that never gets old for an audience of preschoolers. That type of humor is not unique to this book, but what does make it distinctive is the beautiful digitally-created artwork, with its juxtaposition of soft color gradients and sharply defined black parts.It’s so simple, yet so vivid.

 

Becoming Bach by Tom Leonard

This picture book biography is a quick read, but the artwork is worth experiencing slowly.It’s done in a very realistic, detailed style, especially the faces, but it also includes colorful musical notes and swirling patterns to depict the sounds in Bach’s mind. The book celebrates not only Johann Sebastian Bach himself, but music in general. It doesn’t cover Bach’s adult life; after Bach gets his first job as a church organist, the final couple pages praise Bach’s legacy. The tone is motivational, (not so much informational) although it doesn’t contain any inspirational catchphrases in second-person. In fact, the whole book is written in first person, as if Bach himself is describing his love for music to the reader.

 

Creepy Pair of Underwear! By Aaron Reynolds, illustrated by Peter Brown

Glow-in-the-dark green creepy underwear is so much cooler than plain white underwear, right? That’s what Jasper Rabbit thinks, but when he wears his new creepy underwear to bed, he realizes that they’re a little too creepy. So he switches underpants and puts the creepy ones in the laundry. But when he wakes up, he’s wearing the creepy underwear! Every day, he tries another method to get rid of the creepy underwear, and every day, they come back. This book is a sequel to Creepy Carrots from 2012, which was a Caldecott honor, and extremely popular among young readers. Jasper Rabbit’s new adventure has the added appeal factor of underwear humor. While this may not be the most poignant and meaningful literary work on this list, it’s a fun read and a huge hit with its target audience.

 

Town is By the Sea by Joanne Schwartz, illustrated Sydney Smith

On a more serious note, this sparsely-worded book comes from the perspective of a boy whose father works in the coal mine below the sea. The text is repetitive and unemotional, even at the end when the narrator thinks about the “bright days of summer and the dark tunnels underground” and acknowledges that he will someday give up those bright days for those dark tunnels. The illustrations do a beautiful job of matching the book’s tone, especially the sea’s quiet beauty and the dark, featureless coal mine. After giving the matter some consideration, I’ve decided that this book comes at the top of my Caldecott wish list.

 

Escargot by Dashka Slater, illustrated by Sydney Hanson

EscargotWhat’s your favorite animal? It’s probably not the snail. As Escargot the beautiful French snail points out, nobody’s favorite animal is the snail. In this interactive story, the reader accompanies Escargot on his journey towards the salad at the end of the book. (We are frequently reminded of the croutons and light vinaigrette) Along the way, Escargot will explain what is so great about snails, and will also let the reader know how much he dislikes carrots. (Spoiler: Escargot later changes his mind about this) The conversational, humorous tone is enough to make this book a fun read, but Escargot himself is a unique, likable, and memorable character. There is a genuine sense of friendship and affection between reader and character. At least, I felt a bond with that cartoon snail, but maybe I’m just that weird. At any rate, I highly recommend this book to anyone who ever reads books to preschoolers.  

 

More Picture Books

The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors by Drew Daywalt, illustrated by Adam Rex

In the Middle of Fall by Kevin Henkes, illustrated by Laura Dronzek

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

A Different Pond by Bao Phi, illustrated by Thi Bui

Tyrannosaurus Rex vs. Edna the Very First Chicken by Douglas Rees, illustrated by Jed Henry

After the Fall: How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again by Dan Santat

Baby Loves Quantum Physics! By Ruth Spiro, illustrated by Irene Chan

 

Readers

 

It’s Shoe Time! By Bryan Collier

This book is part of the “Elephant & Piggie Like Reading!” series, and therefore is presented as a story that is being read by those characters from author/illustrator Mo Willems. Although each of these books include some dialogue from Elephant and Piggie, the books in this series are otherwise unrelated and independent; in fact, they’re written by different authors. Considering that this book bears both Willems’ and Colliers’ names on the cover, it goes without saying that it’s a good one. The story features anthropomorphic shoes who are shocked and upset when their owner chooses to wear shoes that don’t match. The dad-joke style humor includes switching homonyms (“knot” and “not”, “pair” and “pear”) as well as assigning personalities to the shoes. It’s silly, but it’s a fun read.

 

Pizza Mouse by Michael Garland

When it comes to readers, a lower reading level generally means a simpler, less interesting story. There’s only so much plot and character development that you can squeeze into a few dozen words, few of which are more than one syllable. So when I see a book this easy that tells a complete story with memorable characters, humor, and a satisfying ending, I consider it an excellent book. This story is about a mouse living in the city, who must hide from the many people and animals who don’t like mice. But he also needs to find food. When he is chased by a hawk, he hides in a thrown-away pizza box, which happens to have a slice of pizza in it. Then he gets on the subway to take it home. This entire story is told in twenty sentences, even if you count one-word exclamations. The longest sentence has six words and the longest few words are two-syllable. A beginning reader in kindergarten or first grade is likely to be motivated by this book, as it’s much more fun than most reading material at a comparable level.

 

The Good for Nothing Button by Charise Mericle Harper

blog picture Good for Nothing ButtonThis is another “Elephant & Piggie Like Reading!” book. I have a feeling that we’ll see this series dominating early readers for a while to come. In this one, three birds take turns pressing a little red button that does nothing. At least, Yellow Bird says the button does nothing. But the button surprises Blue Bird. (It’s so easy to press!) And it makes Red Bird sad, because it doesn’t surprise him. Yellow Bird is adamant that the button does nothing, and when his friends say otherwise, he gets mad. Blue Bird and Red Bird attribute his anger to the button, of course. In the end, (spoiler!) they all decide that the button makes them funny, and they like being funny. Because the birds are so expressive, the wide range of emotions in this story are hilarious. (But if you’re over the age of about seven or eight, you’ll have to suspend your maturity to get the most out of it.)

 

Chapter Books

 

King & Kayla and the Case of the Secret Code by Dori Hillestad Butler, illustrated by Nancy Meyers

At the moment, this brand new series has three titles, with a fourth one scheduled to come out in March. I’ve only read two of them, and this is the one I liked better. For the record, though, they’re both good, and I would highly recommend this series to kids who are in the process of transitioning to books with paragraphs and chapters. (I had actually initially intended to list this  as a reader; it’s a close call.) The books are about a girl and her dog, who solve minor mysteries. As the title implies, the mystery in this particular book is a coded message that someone leaves for Kayla. King, the dog, is the narrator, which adds an element of humor. For example, this book opens with King trying to teach Kayla a trick called “Get King Some Cheese Trick,” and King refers to every kind of food as his favorite food.

 

The Princess in Black and the Mysterious Playdate by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale, illustrated by LeUyen Pham

The newest Princess in Black book came out the day before my birthday, and I got my hands on a copy on my birthday. It was a special thing. (Even if I am about twenty years older than the target audience) Of course, this fifth book in the series did not disappoint.This time, Princess Magnolia is visiting her friend Princess Sneezewort when a monster shows up. Princess Sneezewort does not realize that Princess Magnolia is the mysterious Princess in Black. But she has heard of the Princess in Black, and decides to make up her own hero princess persona. Since she’s hiding in a closet, her disguise options are somewhat limited. She becomes the Princess in Blankets. Despite the fact that the two hero princesses don’t recognize each other, they become friends and “wage playdate” on the monster, thereby defeating it. It’s a fun book all around, and I am honored to (almost) share a birthday with it.

 

Isadora Moon Goes to School by Harriet Muncaster

2017 Isadora MoonTechnically, this book (along with the next three books in the series) came out in 2016, but Isadora didn’t show up in America until this past August. We Americans still only have the first two books, although number three comes out this month. Isadora Moon’s mother is a fairy and her father is a vampire, so these books are a comical blend of girly and spooky. Between her unique heritage and her efforts to always do the right thing, Isadora is a highly likable protagonist. Her books are perfect for Princess in Black fans who are ready for something slightly more advanced. I personally preferred this first book to the second one, Isadora Moon Goes Camping.

 

Charlie & Mouse by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Emily Hughes

This is another one that is very close to the fine line between “reader” and “chapter book”. It’s also another one that owes much of its merit to its humor. The title characters are brothers whose antics include selling rocks and demanding bedtime bananas. I was reminded of Andrew Lobel’s Frog and Toad books, and even more so, of the 1996 book My Brother Ant by Betsy Byars. As in those books, the four chapters are essentially separate short stories, but they do relate to each other. The first chapter mentions the neighborhood party that the brothers go to in the second chapter, and the fourth chapter repeats some of the humorous dialogue from the first chapter. This book already has a sequel, so I expect that it will be a continuing series.

 

Graphic Novels

 

Pigs Might Fly by Nick Abadzis and Jerel Dye

Personally, I have mixed feelings about all the pig puns and the somewhat cliche tropes. (The protagonist Lily must disobey her overprotective father and run away from home in order to save her community from invaders, which only she can do because she’s actually smarter than the grown-ups who think they have all the answers.) But the world-building alone makes this a story that stands out. Pigdom Plains is a place where magic and science are at odds, and there is tension and animosity between those with different opinions. There are elements of fantasy, and a sort of steampunk flavor, but Lily’s home is a farming community. These elements combine surprisingly well. Lily and her father are both purists who have devoted themselves to developing an aircraft that can fly without using any magic. Lily is actually very close to reaching that goal, but she has been keeping her work a secret. Her father recently dismissed his protege, Ham Trotters, for wanting to build aircraft that relies on magic. Ham Trotters turns out to be the primary antagonist. Due to the complexity of the plot and the protagonist’s apparent age, (I don’t think her age is ever specified) I would consider this graphic novel to be on the younger side of YA, but it also would make a good choice for a slightly younger reader who enjoys adventures with fantastical settings.

 

Brave by Svetlana Chmakova

Fans of Raina Telgemeier would do well to take note of Chmakova, whose realistic-fiction graphic novels portray real-world middle-school scenarios. Jensen Graham compares his middle school experience to a video game. He just has to get through each day to get to the next level… although he really wishes that the school newspaper would publish his article on sunspots. After an incident when he takes refuge in the newspaper office while running away from “game monsters,” (mean classmates) he ends up regularly helping out with the newspaper and vlog, which are run by classmates Jenny, Akilah, and Felipe. What they most want from him, though, is an interview for a social studies project on “lizard brain culture in middle school”. Jensen isn’t really sure what they mean by that, so it takes him by surprise when they describe bullying behavior as a defense mechanism and ask him about his experience as a victim of bullying. But Jensen doesn’t think he’s being bullied. That detail is the twist that makes this anti-bullying story distinctive (and more realistic) among the plethora of other anti-bullying stories. It ends on a very positive note, as Jensen starts actively challenging the “lizard brain culture” and bullying behaviors at his school.

 

Real Friends by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham

This is another one that reminds me of Raina Telgemeier, not only because of the style of art and the realistic setting, but because it’s autobiographical, like Smile (2010) and Sisters. (2014) As a side note, I think it’s completely fair to use Telgemeier’s name to describe the style and “feel” of other graphic novels because Smile was (and still is) so popular that it really did set the standard for realistic, female-aimed, middle-grade graphic novels. And to return to the matter at hand, that’s exactly what Real Friends is. It chronicles the friendships and social life of the author during her entire elementary school experience. Childhood Shannon and her long-term friend Adrienne are part of a clique referred to simply as The Group, where everyone’s social standing is constantly in flux. For example, the summer before fourth grade, Shannon spends time with ultra-popular Jen, meaning that Shannon is momentarily at the front of the lineup. But she immediately plummets in popularity when another girl, Jenny, evidently starts spreading lies about Shannon. Meanwhile, Shannon also has a tumultuous relationship with her older sister Wendy. Because this is a true story, it concludes on a short-term high note, rather than a happily-ever-after ending.That’s one of several factors that give this book an honest, straightforward feel that makes it stand out among the many middle-grade stories about friendships and cliques.

 

All’s Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson

2017 All's Faire in Middlle SchoolAfter the success of Jamieson’s debut graphic novel Roller Girl last year, I was excited when I found out that she already had a new one on the way. I made sure I read it pretty much as soon as it came out. It did not disappoint. (In fact, I liked it better than Roller Girl, but don’t tell my manager, because Roller Girl is special to her.) Jamieson’s new protagonist is Imogene, a preteen who has spent much of her childhood at the renaissance faire, where her homeschool curriculum is blended with her parents’ jobs. (Her Dad is the “bad guy” knight Sir Hugo, and her mother has an arts-and-crafts shoppe.) But now that she’s starting sixth grade, Imogene wants a taste of “normal” and decides to go to public school. She’s prepared for some degree of middle school social drama and bullying, but what she’s not prepared for is poor grades, trouble with teachers, and the repercussions of giving into seemingly minor peer pressure. (Her classmates are amused by a drawing of Imogene’s, and they encourage her to make more unkind caricatures.) The next thing Imogene knows, she’s been labeled as a bully and is in trouble for keeping her failing science grade a secret from her parents. I already was interested by the renaissance faire setting and was enjoying the contrast in Imogene’s double life, but eventually, I felt that the story became emotionally powerful as well as interesting. When Imogene feels like her world is falling apart because everyone’s angry at her, and all of her problems seem to have suddenly come up out of nowhere, it felt very true to my own preteen experience. Even though Imogene’s specific situation is out of the ordinary, I think that her emotional response will strike a chord with most readers in that general age range.

 

Middle Grade Novels

 

Tumble & Blue by Cassie Beasley

2017 Tumble and BlueBlue Montgomery is cursed to lose at any game or contest, and Tumble Wilson is a dedicated hero-in-training. Together, they aim to get rid of Blue’s family curse. They aren’t quite sure how, but it has something to do with the mysterious golden alligator in the Okefenokee Swamp. When I read this back in the beginning of December, I started writing up a review for it, which I never quite finished. I had quite a lot to say about the characterization, especially about the backstory and motivations of the girl who calls herself Tumble. I also had a lot to say about the charming Southern small-town setting (think Sheila Turnage or Natalie Lloyd) and the half-realistic, half-fantasy vibe. I wouldn’t quite call it magical realism, because it doesn’t have the understated quality typical of the magic parts in magical realism, but it’s something close to that. For the sake of brevity, I’m not going to expand on those points here, but I do want to emphasize that I loved this book. It’s about family, friendship, heroism, and destiny, but I’d say it’s mostly about friendship.

 

Forever or a Long, Long Time by Caela Carter

Siblings Flora and Julian finally have a comfortable home with loving adoptive parents, but their years in the foster care system have left them with trust issues, limited social skills, and some mistaken beliefs. Flora knows that she and her brother weren’t babies and were never born. She and Julian have many theories about where they came from, but since they didn’t have parents, they couldn’t have been born, right? When Flora and Julian find out that their mother (Flora calls her “Person”) is expecting a baby, the situation brings up a lot of questions about their own past. Eventually, the two kids and their mother go on a road trip to track down answers, one foster family at a time. Meanwhile, Flora is struggling in school and butting heads with her “sister” Elena, who is her adoptive father’s biological daughter from his previous marriage.With these types of plot points, this book obviously has themes and messages associated with family. It seems to be a brand-new trend in children’s/YA literature to address the foster care system and the lasting effects it has on children. I’ve read a few such books this year, but it’s not something that I’ve seen much in the past. I’m in favor of this trend. There are so many kids in such situations who should have the opportunity to read books that reflect their experiences, and there are so many other kids who have no idea that such situations even exist. Even aside from the fact that this book is interesting and well-written, it’s the kind of story that builds awareness and empathy in its readers.

 

See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng

Eleven-year-old Alex Petroski from “Rockford, Colorado, United States of America, planet earth” is a young man with big goals. In particular, he wants to build  a working rocket and launch his iPod into space. This book is a transcript of the audio files he records on his iPod, which begins as a message to hypothetical life-forms on other planets, and ends up being a sort of diary. At first, he’s documenting his trip to a rocket festival. But that event turns into an extended road trip with new friends. (And his loyal dog, named Carl Sagan after Alex’s hero) Alex is intelligent, precocious, and so self-sufficient that he is also essentially a caretaker for his mother. But he’s also naive and far too trusting of near-strangers. His narrative voice is believable and conversational. As I read this book, there was never a point where I lost sight of Alex speaking all these words into his iPod. As long as I’m playing favorites here, I’ll acknowledge that this is probably number seven out of my seven favorite middle-grade novels of the year. It’s the characterization, especially of Alex himself, that puts this book on this list.

 

The Girl with the Ghost Machine by Lauren DeStefano

The Girl with the Ghost MachineThis book has garnered less attention and praise than most of the others on this list, and I’m not really sure why. It’s poignant and emotional, beautifully written, full of likable characters, and most importantly, it’s an interesting story. Emmaline Beaumont feels like she’s lost both her parents; her mother has died and her grief-stricken father is obsessed with building a machine that he hopes can bring her back. After two years, Emmaline has had enough. One night, she pours a cupful of tea into the machine with the intention of sabotaging it. Instead, her tea turns out to be the ingredient that makes the machine work. Fueled by the memories associated with tea, the machine brings Emmaline’s mother back just long enough for a new cup of tea. There’s just one catch. Once the machine uses a memory, that memory is gone. Emmaline keeps this all a secret, except from her best friends, twins Gully and Oliver. Eventually, the machine’s success is also discovered by Emmaline’s father and an elderly neighbor. Each of the characters is faced with decisions and questions. Which is more valuable, a memory of a loved one, or a chance for one more conversation with that loved one?

 

Family Game Night and Other Catastrophes by Mary E. Lambert

Annabelle’s mother is a hoarder. It’s a problem that’s been getting progressively worse for a while. On Annabelle’s tenth birthday, she got tired of her mother’s “collections” in her bedroom, so she dumped it all out the window. She also set the rule that her friends can’t come within five miles of her home. Now, a couple years later, (Annabelle is twelve or thirteen; she just finished seventh grade) her bedroom is the only clean room in the house and the clutter is reaching a crisis point. This book is a cross between a lighthearted preteen summertime story and a candidly honest narrative about the damage that disordered behaviors can do, and about the importance of accepting help. There’s more than a hint that Annabelle’s neat and minimalistic habits are abnormal, and that she has much more in common with her mother than she realizes. Fortunately, (spoiler alert!) the story has a hopeful ending. Annabelle’s mother admits that she’s a hoarder and needs help, the relationships in the family start to heal, and the cute boy who saw Annabelle’s house likes her anyway.

 

The Ethan I Was Before by Ali Standish

I assume it’s only a coincidence that this book, like Tumble & Blue, is set in a small town in a swampy part of Georgia. And they both are about a boy who is new to town (it’s one of his parents’ hometown, and he is staying with a grandparent) and a quirky girl who quickly befriends him. (Their covers are very similar, too.) I suppose it’s possible that I have a slight bias to particularly like this setting, but it’s already kind of funny that such similar books were published just months apart. In this case, the new boy is Ethan Truitt, whose family has moved away from their Boston home in the hopes that the change will help with Ethan’s trauma. He blames himself for a tragic accident last winter. And the quirky girl is Coralee, who is full of wild stories, but also keeps a lot of secrets. Their adventures include a mystery, terrible storms, and (sort of) a ghost story. And over time, they gradually reveal more and more of their stories to each other and to the reader.

 

The Secret of Nightingale Wood by Lucy Strange

2017 Secret of Nightingale WoodThis one wouldn’t have made the list if I had posted this shortly after New Year’s as I had intended; I only just finished reading the book a few days ago. But it’s actually probably my very favorite middle grade novel of the year. Unfortunately, it isn’t eligible for the Newbery because a) it’s not American; the author’s home and the original place of publication are the UK. b) It was originally published in 2016. The 2017 pub date is for the American edition. But Newbery eligibility aside, it’s a beautifully written narrative with plenty to say about family, grief, and identity. Set in 1919, it also discusses the aftermath of World War I and the horrors of psychiatric treatment in its early history. (Imagine Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, but from the perspective of the patient’s preteen daughter. Twelve-year-old Henrietta Abbott (who mostly goes by “Henry” or “Hen”) and her parents, baby sister, and nurse have just moved to Hope House, a country estate on the edge of the woods. They lost their previous home in a fire that killed Henry’s older brother Robert, and Mama is suffering from what is evidently (in today’s terminology) a combination of PTSD and postpartum depression. Before the Abbott family has had time to settle in, Father has suddenly gone away on a business trip and Mama’s condition has severely deteriorated under the care of a sinister Doctor Hardy, who keeps her confined and sedated. (The deleterious “rest cure” was actually standard treatment at the time, especially for upper-middle-class women) Interconnecting plot points show Henry defending (and eventually rescuing) her mother, gradually healing from the traumatic loss of her brother, and learning the mysterious backstory of Hope House and its former inhabitants. Lucy Strange’s writing deserves some special credit for a few beautifully simple lines that just won’t be as meaningful if I quote them out of context. My personal favorite is, “Perhaps that’s what grief is… Grief is just amputated love.” (Again, it’s so much more poignant in context.)

 

More Middle Grade Novels

Wishtree by Katherine Applegate

Lucky Broken Girl by Ruth Behar

The Peculiar Incident on Shady Street by Lindsay Currie

Scar Island by Dan Gemeinhart

Under Locker and Key by Allison K. Hymas

The Exact Location of Home by Kate Messner

Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder

 

Poetry and Novels in Verse

 

picture book Out of WonderOut of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets by Kwame Alexander with Chris Colderley and Marjory Wentworth, illustrated by Ekua Holmes

This 49-page picture book is a collection of original poems, each inspired by a different acclaimed poet. (Many of them are contemporary or recent poets, but it includes three pre-20th century poets) The bright collage illustrations and the poems are beautifully executed, both as homages and as new, original works. Although the picture book format makes this book look similar to books for preschoolers, it is in fact best suited to kids in the 3rd-5th grade range or older.

 

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

I was intrigued when I saw a plot summary of this YA novel in verse that said that it took place in the space of a minute. Technically, only three quarters of the book takes place during the sixty-seven seconds that the protagonist Will spends in an elevator. But three quarters of a book is still quite a lot, and there’s a lot that goes on in those sixty-seven seconds. Will is reeling from the death of his brother Shawn, who was shot on his way back from the corner store two days ago. Will knows all about the three all-important rules in his neighborhood, (don’t cry, don’t snitch, do get revenge) so he finds Shawn’s gun and heads out to shoot Riggs, an old friend of Shawn’s who is obviously the killer. (Spoiler: He actually isn’t) But as he takes the elevator down from his home on the eighth floor, the elevator makes several stops to pick up people who turn out to have a lot to say to Will. There are a lot of questions that the book never answers; it doesn’t even tell us what Will does when the elevator finally stops at the ground floor. But that unclarity (emphasized by the the large amount of blank space on each page) actually makes the story all the more powerful.

 

Forget Me Not by Ellie Terry

This one is actually only partly in verse. The verse portions are narrated by Calliope, (aka Calli) a seventh grade girl with Tourette’s syndrome. The parts in prose are narrated by Jinsong, who lives in Calli’s new apartment complex and goes to Calli’s new school. The two become friends, and although there are a few incidents that test or interrupt their friendship, they have a strong bond that becomes the focal point of this book. The story covers various aspects of the middle school social scene, the experiences of living with Tourette’s, and the nature of memories and loyalties within friendships and families.

 

YA Novels

 

Far From the Tree by Robin Benway

2017 Far from the TreeI read this book solely because it won the National Book Award, and I was a little sorry that it won, only because it was actually the only book on the shortlist that I hadn’t at least started prior to the announcement of the winners. But it is a very good book, fully deserving of that award. It follows three teenagers who are biological siblings, but have grown up in different families. Grace, an only child in her adoptive family, recently had a baby herself. After giving up her child for adoption, she wants to bond with her own biological family. Maya, her sassy and talkative younger bio sister, has grown up in a wealthy, picture-perfect family, but behind the scenes, her parents’ marriage is in trouble and her mother struggles with alcoholism. Joaquin, the oldest of the three, has spent his entire childhood and adolescence in foster care, and only now, at the age of seventeen, does he have foster parents who want to adopt him. Mixed in with all of this is the drama of teenage romance and break-ups; each of the three protagonists has a relationship-based subplot going on. Despite being near-strangers, they end up relying on each other for emotional support, gradually confiding in each other, and eventually, working together to learn more about their family history.

 

Caraval by Stephanie Garber

If I had to pigeonhole this series opener into a genre, I’d say fantasy, but it’s definitely not your typical YA fantasy novel. For one thing, the mentions of magic are subtle and mysterious; as the reader, you’re never quite sure what is and isn’t possible in this world. That is very fitting, since the protagonist Scarlett Dragna is in the same position. The setting is also very distinctive. Most of the book takes place at Caraval itself, which is an elaborate event something like a roleplaying game and something like a performance. After Scarlett and her younger sister Tella have spent their childhoods dreaming of going to Caraval, they finally get their chance. But the circumstances aren’t what Scarlett had in mind. Tella and her sailor friend Julian essentially force Scarlett to come along with them, which means running away from the girls’ controlling and abusive father, just days before Scarlett is scheduled to get married to a foreign count she’s never met. Once Caraval starts, Scarlett finds herself part of a bizarre scenario where she can never be sure what’s real and what’s pretend, who’s a friend and who’s a foe, or what will happen when Caraval is over. Also, as one would expect, Scarlett is falling in love with Julian, but it’s very unclear for most of the book whether he’s a good guy or a bad guy. This is a great book for teen readers who like unique settings, complicated plots, and lots of suspense.

 

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

Is there really much more to say than that John Green wrote it? It’s a more-or-less realistic fiction YA novel featuring teenagers who are all either a) fun and quirky, or b) unrealistically articulate, self-aware, and quick with the clever lines. It somehow manages to be a light read, the kind of book that you can finish in a couple days without actually trying to do so, despite the fact that most of the dialogue and internal monologues are full of metaphors and existential questions. Along the way, there’s a plethora of quotable lines. So far, all of that applies to John Green’s writing in general. This particular John Green novel also discusses mental illness (specifically, OCD) and what it means to be a person. Sixteen-year-old Aza, the protagonist, often finds herself obsessing about the fact that half the cells within the human body are microbes rather than human cells, or speculating about whether she’s just a made-up person.At the risk of parroting countless Goodreads reviews, I’d like to comment that I have OCD and found Aza’s thought process very familiar, almost uncannily so. I also appreciated that, unlike most YA novels about mental illness,  there are other things that happen in this book. Aza’s anxiety and intrusive thoughts are set against a backdrop with school, friends, a local mystery, and a crush on an old friend who happens to be connected with the mystery. It’s nice to read a book that acknowledges that people with mental illnesses have to deal with all of the challenges of “real life,” too, and that’s why it’s so tough.

 

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sanchez

2017 I am not your perfect mexican daughterFifteen-year-old Julia Reyes is independent, outspoken, and a bit of a troublemaker. Her Mexican-born mother despairs that Julia doesn’t know how to make a decent tortilla and isn’t religious. Julia hates that her family doesn’t give her more freedom and doesn’t support her plans to go away to college and become a famous writer. She isn’t at all like her sister Olga, who recently died at the age of twenty-two. Olga was domestic, unambitious, and well-behaved. She took one class a semester at community college so that she could live at home and work a dull office job. This book covers a couple years of Julia’s teenage experience, which includes many clashes with her mother, a belated quinceanera, boy drama, struggles with depression, a trip to Mexico, and some detective work that leads her to learn secrets about both her sister and her mother. Just like everybody’s real life, Julia’s story is full of overlapping problems, complicated relationships, and questions that aren’t satisfactorily answered. I’ve seen online critiques of this book that call Julia an unlikable character, but in my opinion, she’s a good character because she’s so believable. Her terse and sassy voice (both as a first-person narrator and in dialogue) are one of the things that sets her so far apart from her mother and sister, which is kind of the whole point.

 

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Near the beginning of the 2017 calendar year, this novel was probably the most talked-about new book. Because it addresses racial issues and opens with a young black man dying at a police officer’s hand, it ties in closely with controversial current events. Although the people in this book are fictional characters, and their backstories may or may not be taken from real life, the book offers a realistic context for the all-too-familiar story of thug-vs-police. The protagonist is sixteen-year-old Starr Carter, who feels like she’s living a double life because she lives in a poor black neighborhood and goes to an upper-middle-class school where virtually all of her classmates are white. On page 23, she witnesses the death of her childhood friend Khalil, who was giving her a ride when he was pulled over for a broken taillight. The police officer shoots Khalil, later explaining that he mistook Khalil’s hairbrush for a gun. For the rest of the book, Starr is simultaneously trying to evade the media, tell her story to those investigating the incident, and keep all of this a secret from her rich white friends. Meanwhile, the media has a lot to say about the shooting, and the possibility that Khalil is a drug dealer. Starr is pretty sure that he was indeed dealing drugs in order to pay family members’ medical bills, but she also knows that this had nothing to do with his death, and that he was so much more than just a lawless, faceless thug from a shady neighborhood. And by the way, the only reason I’m throwing the word “thug” around is that it shows up a lot in the book; the title is in fact a nod to rapper Tupac, who said that “thug” is an abbreviation for “The Hate U Give”.

 

Nonfiction

 

Robins! How They Grow Up by Eileen Christelow

blog picture RobinsThis beautiful nonfiction picture book is a quick and easy read, well-suited to be read aloud to young kids or to be read alone by older kids. (I’d recommend it to anyone over the age of about five or six, and it’s at about a third-grade reading level.) But it covers its topic very thoroughly. It specifies details such as how much a baby robin eats at various stages, how the young birds learn how to fly, and what predators they face. This information is all conveyed from the perspective of the baby robins, giving the narrative a conversational feel and a narrative voice that you would usually only find in fiction. But the real kicker is the artwork, which is so detailed and realistic that it also has educational value. Readers will gain very precise knowledge of what a baby bird looks like at different stages, from the moment it hatches until its first molting as winter approaches. In between, we watch the birds as they grow feathers, leave the nest, and learn to feed themselves.

 

Sandwiches! More than You’ve Ever Wanted to Know About Making and Eating America’s Favorite Food by Alison Deering and Bob Lentz

I never really expected a cookbook to make it onto one of my Best-of-the-Year lists. Especially not a cookbook that features such simple “recipes”. Who needs a cookbook to put together a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or to stick some meat and cheese between two slices of bread? Well, if you are interested in the origin stories of your favorite types of sandwiches, or if you appreciate some creativity in the kitchen, this cookbook is much more of a fun read than “normal” cookbooks. Each sandwich gets its own double-page spread, which makes room for plenty of fun facts and cooking tips, plus illustrations of the individual layers and of the completed sandwich. The brightly colored, cartoonish illustrations are very child-friendly, as is the language, but there’s no reason that an adult can’t enjoy this book. (and the sandwiches that it describes)

 

Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers by Deborah Heiligman

2017 Vincent and TheoI really can’t say enough about what a great book this is. Sure, it’s long, and it definitely is a bit dark. (After all, it’s largely about mental illness, and neither Vincent nor Theo had an easy life or met a peaceful end) But the writing style, the author’s attention to detail in describing setting, the honest portrayal of complicated relationships… It’s all very vivid and gripping in a way that you wouldn’t expect from a nonfiction book with tiny little print. This book has been reviewed, marketed, and cataloged as a YA book, but I think it holds just as much appeal for adults, particularly those in their twenties or early thirties who can relate to the early-adulthood struggles that Vincent and Theo face. (Jobs that don’t work out, the pursuit of purpose and meaning, failed romantic relationships, financial hardships, the frustration of relying on family members when you want to be independent, etc.) The absolute best thing about this book, though, is the constant references to art theory and technique, whether it be through metaphor, wordplay, or emphasis on “painting” the scene. Some of it is actually pretty subtle, but it all contributes to a satisfying sense of cohesiveness.

                       

 

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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.

Particularly Awesome Books of 2015

Reblogged from my primary blog

kaleidoscope49

I have been looking forward to writing this blog post for a whole year. After my list of the best books of 2014, I decided that I wanted to do this every year. All of 2015, I have kept a running list of new books I’ve read that were really, really good. (I’m a children’s librarian, and as it so happens, all of the new books I read were children’s or YA books.) I’ve sorted them into seven categories and picked two to seven favorites from each one. For the picture books and the middle-grade novels, I had such a long list of favorites that I included ten additional titles that I particularly liked, mostly ones that I think have a shot at the ALA youth media awards to be announced later in January 2016. Before I go ahead and get started on the list, I want to reiterate…

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