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.)
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.
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.
Here 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.
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.
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.
What’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
After the Fall: How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again by Dan Santat
Baby Loves Quantum Physics! By Ruth Spiro, illustrated by Irene Chan
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.
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.
This 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.)
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.
Technically, 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.
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.
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
After 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
Blue 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.
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.
This 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?
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.
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
This 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
Lucky Broken Girl by Ruth Behar
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
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.
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.
Far From the Tree by Robin Benway
I 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
Fifteen-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”.
This 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
I 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.