Yeah, I know. Finally.
After about a zillion kick-in-the-pants reminders from my friends, I’ve gotten around to creating my list of favorite fiction for young readers from 2009. Take note: this is not a list of the “best” fiction, or the most critically acclaimed, or the most award-winning. There are plenty of lists around the board where one can find such things already. My list is of personal favorites, and personal favorites only. What books do I wish I owned, or wish I had written? That’s what these are.
Yes, that means lots of glaring omissions, most notably When You Reach Me. I’ve got no beef with When You Reach Me, but I feel as if it’s gotten all the accolades it needs, and adding it to this list seems kind of like gilding the lily at this point. (As if I had any guild to start with.)
I also have to say that if you are a parent, please please please review these books before handing them to your child. Everybody has different tastes and standards where kids’ reading is concerned.
Now, Here We Go!
Best Picture Book Writing of the Year: The Dunderheads by Paul Fleischman, illus. David Robers. OKAY, OKAY. I know this is supposed to be a list of novels, but I had this on my list of Best Picture Books and completely forgot to type it in! But if you’ve missed this suave lil’ gem of a picture book, pick it up right away. This classroom caper is a glorious mishmash of Ocean’s Eleven and Miss Nelson is Missing! with some of the tightest storytelling you can fit in 52 pages. A soon-to-be-classic. (All ages)
Favorite Read-Aloud: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin. I’ve been touting Lin’s novels as superior fare for the elementary school set for ages, and it looks like the Newbery Committee finally got on my side this year. This beautiful, old-fashioned adventure tale takes its setting and inspiration from Chinese folktales, and Lin’s story of a spunky girl out to seek her fortunes with the help of magic goldfish, talking dragons, and tiger-fighting twins is somehting that belongs on every child’s bookshelf. (All Ages)
For Those Who Like Their Plots Thick, and the Worldbuildng Thicker: The Lost Conspiracy by Francis Hardinge — Sentient volcanoes! Exotic killer beetles! Assassins that dye their skin blue with the ashes of their victims! This has been touted as the fantasy novel of the year, and I’m not inclined to disagree. Taking cues from Maori and Pacific Islander cultures, Hardinge has crafted one of the most satisfyingly complex fantasy cultures I’ve ever encountered. As a bonus, the story is thick with intrigue, has a clever heroine who evolves from a beleaguered underdog to spirited leader, and one of the creepiest bad guys this side of Simon Legree. (Ages 12)
Romance Done Right: Lips Touch: Three Times by Laini Taylor. In these three fantastical tales (two short stories and one novella), Taylor explores budding romance and everything a first kiss can mean: not just love, but betrayal, temptation, and salvation. The stories borrow motifs from traditional folklore — babies cursed at birth, children kidnapped by fairies, young ladies perishing from poisoned fruit — and uses it to stunning effect, drawing out the elemental, enriching darkness of fairy tales and giving them new life. Her prose reads like a colorful exotic costume discovered in an attic trunk; it’s just lovely. As a bonus, the first story draws on Christina Rossetti’s beloved poem “Goblin Market” for inspiration. Gotta love that. (Age 12+)
Historical Fiction That Won’t Kill You: Crossing Stones by Helen Frost. It can be difficult to sell a historical novel to a kid when it’s 300+ pages long. TA-TA-TA-TWAAAA! Helen Frost to the rescue! Her succinct story of two families who grow and change during World War I and the suffragette movement is told in a series of poems narrated by the different characters. Clever readers will notice that the form and shape of the poems reflects the personalities of the characters. Regardless, it’s easy to get swept away by Frosts’ clear, succinct imagery, knowing period references, and characterizations so keen that you fall in love with them with just a few lines. (Age 12+)
The Book I Wish I Had Read When I Was Twelve: The Kind of Friends We Used to Be by Frances O’Roark Dowell. There are many, many books that tell the story of the Good Book-Loving Girl and the Mean Best Friend Who Rejects Her After Getting on the Cheerleading Squad. O’Roark Dowell takes this premise and transforms it: hey, cheerleaders are people too, and just because your best friend has developed different interests from you, it doesn’t mean you can’t still work at being friends. The tone of the writing is so spot-on middle school and clever that I wish I had a highlighter pen to score all the quotable lines. Oh, and did I mention that the protagonist wears black boots and listens to Joni Mitchell? SCORE! (Age 9-13)
Most Terrifying Book of the Year: The Carbon Diaries 2015 by Saci Lloyd. It’s Bridget Jones’ Diary – meets – An Inconvenient Truth, as a middle-class London teen recounts the trials and tribulations of Britain’s efforts to cut back national carbon emissions by 60%. When a series of floods threatens to destroy civilization and make such rationing pointless, it’s almost enough to make you cower under the bed with a box of compact flourescent lightbulbs, but Lloyd seasons her story with enough glorious humor to make the book as touching as it is terrifying. The scene where Dad trades in mum’s Saab for a horse, cart, and pig is worth the price of admission alone. My only complaint: 2015?!? C’mon, don’t we have a little more time before the end of the world? (Age 14+)
For the Aspiring World Traveler: Hannah’s Winter by Kierin Meehan. When Hannah, an Australian girl, is sent to spend the winter as an exchange student in Japan, she is thrilled by the prospect of adventure, but soon finds that her hosts’ house is haunted by an ancient samauri, and requires her to solve an ancient mystery to be rid of it. What makes this story more fun than spooky is its overwhelming love of the oddities of foreign travel: the Bean Throwing Festival! A suit of armor that emits colored smoke! Donuts filled with green tea ice cream! Someone send me a dozen of those, pronto. (Age 10+)
For When You Feel the Need to Wield Some Axes: Heroes of the Valley by Jonathan Stroud. There’s nothing like the classic combination of Vikings and snark to keep a reader happy. Stroud uses both to masterful effect here, giving us the tale of black-sheep-of-the-royal-family Halli and his adventures between a dozen or more warring clans . . . which he has mostly “accidentally” angered himself. A funny, exciting tale about family, destiny, and whether or not you should believe stories about man-eating trolls in the mountains. (Age 12+)
Best Summer Story: The Small Adventure of Popeye and Elvis by Barbara O’Connor. What’s a kid to do when he’s alone for the summer in the deep forest of the Deep South with nobody but his strict grandmother and deadbeat uncle for company? When a rickety RV with a six-kid family gets stuck in the mud nearby, Popeye sees it as his best chance for excitement. When a series of small boats keep mysteriously appearing in the creek nearby, he and his new friends find a perfect adventure. In the hands of any other writer, this book’s setting (rural impoverished South) would be the makings for high drama, but O’Connor keeps it refreshingly light and honest. And funny. Did I mention the funny? (Ages 7-9)
Doing it Old School! Fire by Kristin Cashore. A prequel to last year’s hit fantasy novel, Graceling, this tale continues Cashore’s penchant for strong characters, a very old-fashioned fantasy setting, and the trials and tribulations of a girl so beautiful that men literally throw themselves on their swords for her. The fact that she can also control minds makes for a very interesting shades-of-grey morality story. I’d also like to give points to Cashore for Fire’s father, Cansrel, who with his silver-blue hair, party-boy ways, and habit of collecting exotic animals, makes him the glammest fantasy character I’ve ever run across. (P.S. I’ve no idea what “doing it old school” really means.) (Age 15+)
A Swedish Import So Lovely it Puts IKEA to Shame: A Faraway Island by Annika Thor. I’ve described this book before as “Anne of Green Gables – meets – Number the Stars,” and I stand by that. This book — the first in a bestselling, beloved series from Sweden — is the story of sisters, two Jewish girls from Vienna who are evacuated by their parents on the eve of World War II to live with foster parents on a tiny island off the coast of Sweden. Times are tough, especially for older sister Stephie, who finds it difficult to make friends, worries for her left-behind parents, and whose foster parents are dead ringers for Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert. But eventually, she comes to find home. Thor teases out lovely details — the traditions and festivals of the islanders are especially sweet — and is wise enough to make her characters uncomfortably complex: the villagers are kind but also bigoted; Stephie has a well-meaning schoolmate who gives her a picture of Hitler as means of lessening her homesickness (whoops). I can only hope that American publishers continue to bring the remaining books in this series to our shores.
Best Reissue: The Serial Garden: The Complete Armitage Family Stories by Joan Aiken. From the author of the beloved Wolves of Willoughby Chase comes a set of charmingly loopy fantasy stories, published in various volumes and periodicals and finally collected here. On her honeymoon, Mrs. Armitage makes a wish that she will “never be bored with happily ever after,” and in the ensuing magical adventures, she never is: the family finds out that the kindergarten teacher is really a witch, what to do when the house has been comissioned by fussy wizards, a Christmas party in which all the children are turned into fish, how to deal with a ghostly governess, and much more. Aiken’s style never takes itself very seriously (this is a family who, when a unicorn turns up in the garden on Tuesday morning, responds by blustering “but this usually only happens on Monday”), and the stories usually end with all problems resolved and the characters sitting down to tea. It makes for a glorious read aloud, too.