Monday, December 23, 2013

Best Books of 2013: Children’s Books

This is the Books for Children and Young Adults segment of January Magazine’s Best Books of 2013 feature. You can see our picks for the Best Crime Fiction of 2013 here and Best Cookbooks of 2013 here. Still to come are our choices of the Best Non-Fiction and Best Fiction. -- LLR

A Long Way Away written and illustrated by Frank Viva (HarperCollins Canada)
Like Along a Long Road, his award-winning debut storybook in 2011, designer Frank Viva’s A Long Way Away captivates. This is innovative children’s storytelling at its very finest. Read it one way and an alien will find his way from space to Earth’s deep sea. Read it the other way, and a sea creature is embarking on an alien adventure. The cleverness of the design boggles the mind of adults, though I’m quite sure it will enchant the young children the book is intended for. -- Monica Stark

Allegra by Shelley Hrdlitschka (Orca)
Music is the connective tissue of Shelley Hrdlitschka’s ninth novel, Allegra. A performing arts high school is not proving to be the school Allegra dreamed about. She had imagined being able to dedicate herself completely to dance, which is her passion. It’s been a rude awakening. It’s still school, and not only must she deal with the cliques and mundane classes she’d have to take at other schools, here she is also expected to come out with a well-rounded arts education and that’s not what she had in mind at all. She is disconsolate when she’s forced to take music theory, something she’d figured she was beyond. But she finds herself surprisingly fascinated, not only by the material, but by the interesting and attractive young teacher presenting it. I liked Allegra a lot. Allegra herself is engaging enough to be a welcome companion and while some parts of the conclusion seem inevitable from the beginning, there are enough twists to make the outcome interesting. And it satisfies. -- Sienna Powers

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell (St. Martin’s Griffin)
Eleanor & Park is so much better than it needs to be, it takes one by surprise. Though the book is aimed at young adult readers, this is the sort of ageless story that needs no limits. Readers of all ages who enjoy having their hearts touched will like this one. The pair in the title are a brace of 16-year-olds who are deeply in love. They are intelligent teens and understand that, for so many reasons, the deep attachment they feel can not last. Even so, they give into the things that call them and have a go. Eleanor & Park follows up Rowell’s debut: 2011’s smart and wonderful Attachments. No sophomore slump here. Eleanor & Park is a biography of a first love: poignant, heartfelt, ultimately doomed, but absolutely unforgettable. -- Sienna Powers

Fairy Godmothers Inc. by Jennifer Wardell (Jollyfish)
Though Jennifer isn’t the first writer to take run at fracturing a fairytale, in her debut novel, the Utah lifestyle reporter brings something new to a timeworn subgenre. Seasoned fairy godmother Kate has just gotten a choice assignment: client Rellie (you can guess what that’s short for) isn’t sure about what her happily-ever-after should look like. Meanwhile the prince Kate produces for her client is more interested in the fairy godmother than the would-be princess. It all goes to show: relationships really can be complicated! This material could easily have felt trite and old, however Wardell manages to deliver enough unexpected twists and surprise turns that we feel we really are reading something fresh and new. This is a surprisingly sophisticated romp through one of the favorite children’s stories of all time. -- Monica Stark

Flora’s War by Pamela Rushby (Ford Street)
It’s 1915. Teenage Australian girl Flora is in Egypt with her archaeologist father. Suddenly, there’s a war on and she will have more to worry about than this season’s dig and the cute boys she might meet at the balls and armies in Cairo. There are a lot of wounded soldiers being brought into town. To be daring, she has taken driving lessons and now, they will come in useful as she volunteers as a driver. This is another fine piece of historical fiction from one of Australia’s two top writers of history for children and teens, the other being Jackie French. -- Sue Bursztynski 

Freaking Out: Real-Life Stories About Anxiety by Polly Wells (Annick)
Anxiety impacts millions of young people. Maybe that’s always been true, but it’s never been more true than now. On reading writer and producer Polly Wells’ Anxiety, one can’t help but think that one thing that might be terrific for young people with anxiety is reading about other people with the same concerns. One of the things that can be very powerful in all of our lives is the realization that we are not alone. Wells here collects stories from 13 adolescents. These kids are all very different but seeing their stories here between two covers is potentially reassuring, as is a resource guide to help young people find their own solutions. -- Sienna Powers

Ghost Hawk by Susan Cooper (Margaret K. McElderry)
I’ve been a huge Susan Cooper fan since The Dark Is Rising. This one is set not in Cooper’s native England, but in America, where she has lived for many years. The story is seen from two different viewpoints, that of  a Native American boy, Little Hawk, and an English boy, his friend, who lives in a new Pilgrim settlement. John, the English boy, is unlike most of his compatriots. He sympathizes with and respects the indigenous people and watches with horror what is being done to them. The book is full of beautiful, poetic descriptions of Native American life and belief and, this being a Susan Cooper novel, it has fantasy elements, but I can’t tell you what without spoilers. -- Sue Bursztynski 

Keala Up a Tree by Patricia McLean (BeachHouse)
There is something endlessly inviting about Patricia McLean’s debut work, Keala Up a Tree, a story about a little girl -- Keala -- who calls upon all of her Hawaiian animal friends to help Gecko find a home. This is a charming story that sweetly conveys the enchantment and beauty of Hawaii in a way that will make readers in colder climes -- children and adults alike -- yearn for the magic of Hawaii. Both collectors and pint-sized adventurers will love this one. -- Linda L. Richards

Muybridge and the Riddle of Locomotion by Marta Braun (Firefly)
For artists and illustrators, Eadweard Muybridge changed everything. The photographic work he did in the early days of photography helped us understand ourselves better, not to mention the world around us. Finally, through the amazing still photographs he took in series -- horses at high speed, people walking, running, boxing, riding -- were mysteries were solved in viewing his photos. Questions people had always asked were answered conclusively. Later he would invent the Zoopraxiscope, his “projecting magic lantern” so people could view the results of his experiments: moving pictures! Marta Braun has captured all of this beautifully in a book appropriate for kids nine and up. (But adults will enjoy it, too!) -- David Middleton

My Life As an Alphabet by Barry Jonsberg (Allen & Unwin)
Candice Phee has been given an assignment by her English teacher: write a list about her life from A to Z. Being a nerd, she decides to do it as a book. Candice has a highly over-the-top life, with her father and uncle (known as Rich Uncle Brian) not talking to each other about a patent her father believes his brother stole from him, a goldfish called Earth-Pig Fish. A friend she calls Douglas Benson From Another Dimension because he believes firmly that he’s from an alternative universe and keeps trying to return by jumping from a tree every night. And the odd thing is, he may be telling the truth: the author let’s you make up your own mind on that. Touching, funny and sad all at once. -- Sue Bursztynski 

The First Third by William Kostakis (Penguin Australia)
Bill, a nice Greek boy with an over-the-top family, has been given a bucket list of tasks by his dying grandmother, his yia-yia. They include finding a nice girl for his (gay) older brother and bringing him home, finding a new husband for his mother, simple stuff, really. A lovely, heartwarming, funny and sad story, and semi-autobiographical, inspired by his loving family. When the author visited my school, he was swamped by female fans who had loved the book and were relieved to discover his grandmother was alive and well (she called while they were with him). The fact that he’s young and gorgeous didn’t hurt. -- Sue Bursztynski 

The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf by Ambelin Kwaymullina (Walker Books Australia)
Ashala Wolf is a girl with special powers who has been hiding out in the wilderness with other children and teens of her kind. Each has a single power. Ashala’s is Sleepwalking, which enables her to create real things in her dreams. In a world which has recovered from the devastating effects of climate change and pollution, everyone lives happily except those with powers, who are locked in detention camps. Ashala’s “tribe” has been a thorn in the side of the administration. Now she has been captured and it’s time to break her through interrogation. This was nothing like The Hunger Games, but it had about it many of the qualities I loved about that series. The first of a series. -- Sue Bursztynski 

War Brothers by Sharon E. McKay, illustrated by Daniel LaFrance (Annick)
Though I’m still slightly torn about whether or not the making of a child soldier is appropriate fodder for a graphic novel aimed at young adult readers, the combination of Sharon E. McKay’s powerful prose and Daniel LaFrance’s luminous illustrations is just right in War Brothers, originally written in traditional novel form and published in 2008. Storyboard and graphic artist LaFrance brings the story to life with richly vivid illustrations. Shown are the abduction, training and ultimate escape of 14-year-old Ugandan Jacob, an apparent composite of children McKay interviewed several years ago who had been kidnapped then trained as soldiers for the Lord’s Resistance Army under the infamous Joseph Kony. These components -- strong story, powerful storyteller, talented artist -- make for a winning combination. -- Monica Stark

Where Beauty Lies by Elle and Blair Fowler (St. Martin’s Press)
So, obviously, Elle and Blair Fowler’s tales of the London sisters shouldn’t make anyone’s best of lists. What is this but teenerati? No one should care about this stuff. And yet. I just simply can’t get enough. Nor am I alone, both books in the series have been well-reviewed by some pretty significant outlets. I don’t care about that, either. What I do care about? What are Ava and Sophia London up to this time? And the second book in the series (after Beneath the Glitter) more than delivers. This time out it’s New York City during Fashion Week while the London sister’s brand, London Calling, rockets skyward. It’s a heady ride and pretty much devoid of fiber or any type of real nutrition but, hey: everything in life can’t be good for you, right? -- Monica Stark

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