It’s that time of year again! The time for list-makin’!
2008 was a particularly strong year for youth literature, and I simply cannot include every single good book of the year on this list — although you will notice that it’s rather longish. My criteria and extra-scientific selection process goes something along this wise:
1. Do I frequently mentally refer to the book?
2. Do I often talk about it with everyone I meet?
2. Do I secretly wish to own a copy of the book?
If the answer to all three are “yes,” then it’s on the list. So here we go:
BEST COSTUMES: The Red Necklace by Sally Gardner. This tale of the French Revolution is a charmer — it has action, romance, magic, and clothes, clothes, clothes. There’s a character who has his flower beds replanted each day to match the color of his shoes, there’s a Greek mythology-themed costume ball, and a stylish villain who, when he isn’t making the heroine swoon, tells the time via a Grim Reaper-adorned pocket watch. If you like sweeping period romances like The Scarlet Pimpernel, then this book’s for you. Love it.
I WISH I COULD LIVE WITH THEM FOR A WHILE: The Penderwicks on Gardam Street by Jeanne Birdsall. In this funny, clever 21st-century riff on Little Women, the four Penderwicks sisters learn about truth, honor, Latin, football, cats, duckies, True Love, and melodramatic Aztecs. This is one of those rare sequels that surpasses its predecessor.
BEST VILLAIN WITH AN INADVERTENTLY HILARIOUS NAME: Airman by Eoin Colfer. Imagine tossing Batman, The Count of Monte Cristo, and Jules Verne in a blender, and then throwing in a princess and Victorian aircraft for spice. It’s a perfect alternate-history action/adventure pageturner, but the bad guy is named Bonvilain, which propells it into the category of Awesome.
BEST RETELLING OF A FAIRY TALE: A Curse Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce. It’s “Rumplestiltskin” reset in early 19th-century England, revolving around a mysteriously cursed wool mill. The level of suspence is up to the hilt in this baby, propelling it out of the realm of folklore into a full-bodied ghost story. Bonus points: the inclusion of British folk magic. That stuff’s always interesting.
OH MY GOSH THAT SCENE WAS HOT: Impossible by Nancy Werlin. Twilight fans, take heed: if you took all four novels of that saga and boiled out all the angst, you’d end up with the taut romantic thriller that is Impossible. This tale of young adults facing down a supernatural curse and falling for each other in the process is smokin’. Oh, and it’s based on the ballad “Scarborough Fair.” Need I say more?
MOST LIKELY TO BE MADE INTO A FILM: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. A dystopian future society where teenagers are forced to fight to the death on reality TV? A fiesty young lass named Katniss is thrown into the fray with naught but her hardscrabble thirst for survival, a boy who is totally in love with her, and her mad archery skillz. Can’t wait for the sequel!
TOTALLY IN LOVE WITH THE PROTAGONIST: The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness. It’s science fiction with a strong literary bent. It concerns a world of men who were infected with a virus that enables them to hear each others’ thoughts. And then a series of events leads to a major war, chase across wild terrain, betrayals, love, etc. etc. Todd Hewitt is the young lad caught up in the whole mess, and his rough-shod voice is just heartbreakingly real.
THE NOVEL IN WHICH I’D LIKE TO TAKE A VACATION: The Dragonfly Pool by Eva Ibbotson. The fictional country of Bergania, when it isn’t overrun with Nazis, is just the place I’d like to visit, if I had the chance. Young English girl Tilly takes a trip there in 1939 with a very hilarious school chums as part of a folk dance competition, and ends up befriending and rescuing Bergania’s young prince from the clutches of said Nazis. Folks, this book has everything — including a high-class cheese tasting and a Mongolian dog — and is probably my favorite historical fiction of the year.
BEST KICK-BUTT PROTAGONIST: Graceling by Kristin Cashore. Katsa is the character I’d least like to meet in a dark alley . . . if she were a villain. This old-school fantasy tale of a girl with super-lethal superpowers is one heckuva rollercoaster ride, complete with creepy villain, a gold-jewelry-bedecked hottie of a love interest, a fight to the death with a mountain lion, and as much sword fightin’ as your heart could possibly desire.
BEST RETELLING OF A FAIRY TALE, PT. 2: Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan. Actually . . . this book was published as adult fiction in Australia. It’s a very, very dark retelling of “Snow-White and Rose-Red,” broadened and deepened in such a way that it touches on nearly every aspect of human life. Death, sex, violence, family, love, ethics, you name it, it’s here. Amazing stuff, but as a warning: the first few chapters are designed to show you the darkest aspects of human behavior, and features scenes of abuse and rape. It’s handled deftly, but you ought to know it’s there. This ain’t no Disneyfied fairy tale, but draws on the earthy fears and hopes that are the DNA of all folklore.
FOR WHEN YOU WANT TO WEAR ALL BLACK: Skim by Mariko Tamaki, illustrated by Jillian Tamaki. Whoa, you think you were a troubled teen? Kimberly “Skim” Cameron is an overweight, half-Japanese, Wiccan, Goth, possibly lesbian, and rather depressed and lonely girl. Her reaction when a teen suicide rocks her high school is pitch-perfect in its depiction of adolsecent angst and isolation. Give this one to the Bell Jar set. Bonus points: the gorgeous illustrations for this graphic novel combine, like its heroine, both western and Japanese art styles, and made the list of the New York Times Best Illustrated books of the year.
MOST LIKELY TO BE TOLD BY A RETIRED PIRATE: Nation by Terry Pratchett. In an alternate version of the 19th century, a tsunami hits a chain of South Pacific islands, leaving an island boy and a shipwrecked English girl as the only survivors. Their work to rebuild a life together leads to a tale that asks hard questions about the nature of civilization, racism, society, and much more. Oh, and it’s chock full of life-risking adventures, ghosts, sharks, supernatural wonders, and the standard brilliant Pratchett-isms. You think your life is hard? The protagonist of this book can see death. It just makes you want to sit on a tar-barrel and say “Arrrg.”
BEST SUPPORTING CAST: The Diamond of Drury Lane by Julia Golding. Yes, this tale of the intrepid spitfire Cat Royal — a foundling who inhabits the Drury Lane Theatre, circa the 1780s, is one humdinger of a mystery tale. But what makes it superb are all the secondary characters: London street thugs, aristocrats who sneak off to boxing matches, a political cartoonist known as Captain Sparkle, and — I kid you not — a former African slave who is also a violin prodigy. Bonus points: a glossary of 18th-century street slang in the back.
THE SEVEN HABITS OF HIGHLY EFFECTIVE PRINCESSES: Princess Ben by Catherine Gilbert Murdock. When young Benevolence, or Ben’s parents are killed by invaders, along with the king, she is next in line for the throne, and under the thumb of the imperious Queen Sophia, who is determined to turn her into a — horrors! — “proper princess.” Ben’s rebellion against this idea leads to her imprisonment in a castle tower with a secret room, in which she learns all about magic. But is her lack of interest in politics threatening her country’s stability? Ben’s development into adulthood is a fairy tale that keeps you guessing. As an added perk, it’s written in an arch 19th-century prose style, and it just beautiful.
BEST READ-ALOUD: The 13 Clocks, by James Thurber. This is a reissue, published decades ago, but is hands-down our favorite book to read at bedtime, on vacation, when stuck in traffic, whenever. Ages before The Princess Bride poked fun at fairy tales, Thurber’s small masterpiece was doing it in high style. This book has all that is required in a good story: a princess, a prince, an evil duke, spies, enchanted treasure, and a whimsical, magical middleman called the Gollux, who wears “an indescribable hat.” Best for adults are the hilarious one-liners (“I’ve sent eleven guards to kill the prince!” “But sire, the prince is as strong as ten men!” “Well, then that leaves one guard to finish him off!”) Be sure to find the 2008 edition, which preserves Marc Simont’s gorgeous full-color illustrations.
BEST BOOK WHOSE PLOT I CANNOT SUMMARIZE: The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson. See . . . if I say anything about the plot, it will TOTALLY ruin the reading experience for you. Let’s just say it’s one of the better depictions of an amnesia patient piecing together her life, that it’s set roughly 100 years from now, deals with bioethics, and will make you say AHHH! about halfway through. This one’s a great way to get a deep philosophical discussion about the mind/body problem.
MOST ADORABLE NINTH GRADERS EVER: Every Soul a Star by Wendy Mass. Three teens with completely different backgrounds are drawn together under various circumstances to view a total solar eclipse. There’s brainy Ally, popular pretty-girl Bree, and artistic but withdrawn Jack. Mass stays far away from the usual stereotypes so pervasive in youth media. Bree’s popular, but she isn’t a “mean girl,” and Ally isn’t so much nerdy/socially inept as she is lonely and charmingly unself-concious. The unlikely but deep friendship that forms between the three kids is as real and magnificent as the eclipse itself — and by the way, you’ll learn scads about astronomy from this book as well. Did you know that there are Muslims who travel the world to be present at eclipses, in order to pray for the sun’s return? Cool, huh?
COULD PROBABLY TAKE NANCY DREW DOWN IN A FIGHT: Into the Dark by Peter Abrahams. The adventures of intrepid detective Ingrid Levin-Hill continue in the third Echo Falls mystery. This time, her eccentric-but-beloved Grampy has been accused of murder. Can Ingrid clear his name? Ingrid is the kind of female protagonist I always love to see: she’s smart and talented, but also prone to the various insecurities that usually plague 13-year-olds. In other words, a real girl. Abrahams usually takes elements from familiar children’s stories to enrich his Echo Falls stories; “Hansel and Gretel” is the theme of Into the Dark, to wonderfully spine-tingling effect.
BEST FLUFFY BEACH READ: Suite Scarlett by Maureen Johnson. The Martin family runs a boutique hotel in New York City, but it’s fallen hard times — so much that the four Martin children are called upon to help keep it afloat. Scarlett is assigned to care for the elegant Empire Suite, and finds her life turned upside-down when the wealthy, eccentric “Auntie Mame”-ish Mrs. Amberson becomes her first client. What I especially liked here are the fun girly details: a crush on an aspiring actor, red Chanel lipstick, a wacky appearance on a morning television program, and the Dior dress of your dreams.
PROBABLY MY FAVORITE BOOK OF THE YEAR: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. You know how The Jungle Book is about an orphaned boy raised by animals? Well, this book is about a boy raised by ghosts in a graveyard. It seems creepy — and many parts of this book are, purposely so — but the characters are full of such warmth, humor, and personality that you can’t help but love ’em. There’s a heapin’ helpin’ of danger and excitement — you can’t help it in a book where the vampire, the mummy, and the werewolf are the good guys — as well as a dash of eye-misting pathos. Gaiman uses a variety of folkloric motifs that make the chapters especially rich and vibrant. I can’t wait for my kids to be old enough to share it with them!