Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Best Books of 2009: Children’s Books

Alphabeasties by Sharon Werner and Sarah Forss (Blue Apple) 48 pages
Authors Sharon Werner and Sarah Forss are graphic designers at the helm of Werner Design Werks in St. Paul, Minnesota. This is a fact that will surprise collectors of children’s books not at all. A classic animal alphabet book with several important twists, I suspect that designers and aficionados of typography will be this book’s biggest market. The animals in Alphabeasties are created with the letters that spell their names: camels made of Cs, dogs made of Ds and so on. In addition there are cut-outs and die-cuts and other fun and creative exercises in paper. The resulting book is just about perfect and a treat for almost all the senses. -- Monica Stark

A Small Surprise by Louise Yates (Knopf) 40 pages
Every year among the children’s books that January Magazine designates as the best of the year, there tends to be one or two that make it on the illustrations alone. These are the picture books that we figure most of the first edition ends up in the hands of collectors. It’s not that kids won’t like the book -- in fact, I have no reason to think that children do not respond to brilliant illustration. And it’s not that these books don’t have a worthwhile story. But, for our purposes -- or, at least, for mine -- the art is so great, it’s practically frameable. And it practically stands alone. Louise Yates’ debut effort, A Small Surprise, is such a book. There’s a rabbit (rabbits were big, big, big this year!) and he runs off to join the circus. A fun premise. But Yates’ circus animals steal this show. Her style is loose, yet considered; somewhat anthromorphized, yet quite real. This, from Yates’ bio, is telling: “One of the things I love most about picture books is the silences, the moments when the text shuts up and the pictures either tell you something that the text hasn’t or something totally different.” Exactly. Yates gets it. This one will be high on collector’s lists, but there’s every chance that kids will like it, too. -- David Middleton

The Choir Boats by Daniel A. Rabuzzi (ChiZine Publications) 406 pages
It will surprise no one who has read this book to discover that author Daniel A. Rabuzzi has a strong background in mythology and folklore. It seems that all of what he learned is in play in The Choir Boats, a fantastic and deeply entertaining debut novel that promises to be the first book in a series: “Volume One of Longing for Yount” is what it actually says on the cover. Be that as it may -- and while I might look forward to further volumes -- The Choir Boats is perfectly contained on its own. In London in 1812, a merchant named Barnabas McDoon is sent on a voyage to the world called Yount with a key that can only be used by him to unlock their prison. It’s not, of course, as easy as all that. In McDoon’s way are a wizard, a fallen angel and other obstacles -- some monstrous, some magical -- threaten to compromise McDoon’s mission. Part steampunk adventure, part classic fantasy, The Choir Boats might be earmarked for young adults, but anyone to whom this sounds like a rich ride will be surprised and delighted. -- Lincoln Cho

The Devil’s Paintbox by Victoria McKernan (Knopf) 368 pages
In the blood-soaked year 2009 was in children’s literature, it was a delight to come across The Devil’s Paintbox. Set in 1865, orphaned brother and sister, Maddy and Aiden Lynch, must struggle through a 2000 mile journey along the Oregon Trail. McKernan captures the danger and beauty of the American West with time-traveling accuracy. Older children will enjoy this new adventure from the author of the award-winning Shackleton’s Stowaway. The Devil’s Paintbox is a wonderfully crafted story rich in historical detail: you can almost smell the saddle leather; feel the pangs of hunger and the sharp bites of fear. And not a fang or a wand in sight. -- Monica Stark

Duck! Rabbit! by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld (Chronicle Books) 40 pages
There’s an almost crazy amount of charm in every inch of Duck! Rabbit! by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld. It’s a children’s picture book intended for people three and up and -- somehow, as if by magic -- it is more than the sum of its parts. I suppose you could say that the “story” involves conflict and the resolution of it but, to be honest, even calling it a story takes things a little far. More like a conversation -- all off-screen -- on the nature and identity of the title creature. “It’s a duck and he’s about to eat a piece of bread.” “It’s a rabbit and he’s about to eat a carrot.” The only reason those two lines are worthy of remark is that they’re said about the exact same image. And that same image crops up again and again with different backgrounds and different ideas of what it is (“Duck! Rabbit!) and what it’s doing. While that doesn’t really sound like enough on which to base a book -- or, for that matter, a review -- there’s something about how it all comes together that small children will find comforting. There’s not enough here for older children to call “story” but they’ll find it amusing and new readers will be able to master all of the simple words before long. -- Sienna Powers

The Genius Wars by Catherine Jinks (Allen & Unwin) 396 pages
Cadel Piggott (now Cadel Greeniaus), the hero of Evil Genius and Genius Squad, just wants to live a normal life like any other teenager -- you know, parents, studies, hanging out with friends. Unfortunately, it’s not going to happen when you are a genius computer hacker and a criminal mastermind thinks you shouldn’t be wasting your God-given abilities on something as boring as everyday life. And said criminal mastermind, Prosper English, may have a point. Cadel isn’t going to be able to use his skills for dull stuff, though he can’t resist hacking a few systems to help his friend who suffers cerebral palsy. This in itself causes him grief. It’s a good ending to an intriguing trilogy which was well worth the read. -- Sue Bursztynski

Guinevere’s Gamble by Nancy McKenzie (Knopf) 368 pages
The Arthurian legends have inspired countless tellings and retellings though few of those have been for children. Nancy McKenzie corrected that a couple of years ago with Guinevere’s Gift, intended to be the first book in the series she is calling the Chrysalis Quartet. Guinevere’s Gamble is the second book in that series. The strong female heroine in this series is likely to make this a book favored by girls aged 10 to 14. As Booklist said, this series puts a “feminine spin on a tale more typically focused on men.” And though Guinevere’s Gamble is the second book in the series, you will understand what’s going on with no trouble if you’ve not yet read the first one. -- Sienna Powers

Me and You by Geneviéve Coté (Kids Can Press) 32 pages
Me and You is pure, simple charm. A lovely story. Primitive but skillful illustrations. Even a sweet message. All in a smaller-than-usual format that would fit quite nicely into tiny hands. Two friends -- a rabbit and a pig -- spend the book trying to be like each other, then, by journey’s end, discover that their differences contribute to the things they share and that they appreciate each other for what they each bring to their relationship. Deceptively simple and unassuming, Me and You is very, very good. -- David Middleton

Me, Myself and Ike by K.L. Denman (Orca Books) 194 pages
In Me, Myself and Ike, K.L. Denman (Perfect Revenge, Spiral) brings us the first person view of a teenager descending into madness. It is, at times, a difficult book to read but narrator Kit Latimer’s heartbreaking and compelling tale is equally difficult to put down. After seeing a television show about a 5000 year old man, preserved in the ice, Kit determines to become the next ice man; a source of information for the future generations who will find him. With his friend, Ike, Kit sets about accumulating everything he will need for his expedition, including artifacts that will give those who find him some idea of what life was like in the 21st century. As Kit becomes more obsessed and self-isolated, his family begins to worry though, in some ways, the worst of their fears can’t match Kit’s new reality. Me, Myself & Ike ends with an Author’s Note that explains that, in the book, Kit is experiencing the onset of schizophrenia. She goes on to explain what it is and give Internet sources for readers who might be interested in researching further. “It was often emotionally exhausting for me to continue imagining what my character was experiencing, and if it was hard to imagine, I believe it must be incredibly harsh and stressful to live with.” Denman does a credible job of sharing the experience in a memorable book. -- Sienna Powers

Smudge’s Mark by Claudia Osmond (Simply Read Books) 384 pages
From the outset, Smudge’s Mark is dense and meandering and at first seems quite incomprehensible. And I couldn’t put it down. If you think those things don’t seem to go together, welcome to the club and read on. I’m still not sure I understand how it happened, but I do know I’d read another book by this author. One of the most powerful things about Smudge’s Mark is the strong and personable voice of the narrator, Simon, a.k.a. Smudge. “My grandpa was a wicked prankster,” Osmond-as-Simon begins. “Usually after working the part-time midnight shift at the mushroom farm, he’d make his way home to 49 Stone Elements Drive in the darkness of the early morning.” And the correct response would seem to be: who cares? At this point -- the beginning -- Osmond has seemingly done nothing to insure we care at all. And yet, oddly enough, we do. It is as though, with those first simple words, Simon waltzes into our lives as though he hasn’t a care in the world. And then, layer upon layer, we learn of all the dark places: all the things that are at stake and by then we realize that while we weren’t paying attention, Osmond has somehow -- magically? -- made us care. Smudge’s Mark is, in its own strange way, a very good book. At story’s beginning, we meet Simon in a moment of quiet, almost introspection. By journey’s end, Simon has more or less preserved life as he knows it as well as Emogen, a hidden realm with a strong connection to Earth. -- Aaron Blanton

Time of Trial: Volume 4, The Laws of Magic by Michael Pryor (Random House Australia) 432 pages
Oh, joy, another of Michael Pryor’s delightful steampunk adventures of Aubrey, Caroline and George! Magical enemies are on the rise again, the evil Dr. Tremaine is back, this time with golems. Unlike the golems of legend and film, these are unable to be distinguished from the real thing until you smash them -- and there's none of this nonsense about magical or religious rituals or holy words to bring them into being -- hell, no! This is the (early) 20th century, isn’t it? The only good news is that Aubrey seems finally to have overcome his serious medical condition (the fact that he’s technically dead). You really can’t read this without having read the rest of the series, so if you haven’t yet read them, what are you waiting for? -- Sue Bursztynski

This Little Bunny Can Bake by Janet Stein (Schwartz & Wade) 40 pages
It’s a new day of classes at Chef George’s School of Dessertology. Everyone is goofing, except Little Bunny, who is careful to pay attention, follow the rules and measure. Meanwhile, Poodle weighs herself on the kitchen scale, cat uses dog as a cookie cutter, and mouse plays with the brulée (you just know that will end badly!). Through all this din and brouhaha, Little Bunny goes on her tidy little way and, by the end, has created an impressive masterpiece, while not being the least bit smug about it. This Little Bunny Can Bake is a rare creative treat. Writer and illustrator Janet Stein has chosen to give her charming illustrations a vintage look and it really works. It feels like a classic: like something we perhaps all read (or had read to us!) when we were kids, then forgot about and have now, happily, found again. -- Linda L. Richards

The Tree That Time Built selected by Mary Ann Hoberman and Linda Winston (Source Jabberwocky) 309 pages
It’s rare for a book to meet every goal set out for it but it seems to me that The Tree That Time Built works so well, it might have done just that. The book calls itself “a celebration of nature, science, and imagination” and it really is all those things. More, too, because what The Tree That Time Built does is say it in poetry. U.S. Children’s Poet Laureate Mary Ann Hoberman has worked with author, teacher and cultural anthropologist Linda Winston to collect the very best work on environmental awareness. And though I’m generally not enthusiastic about children’s books with a strong message The Tree That Time Built is so skillfully constructed and so expertly executed, it works on every level. Though the focus here is on environmental awareness, the voices used are among the best known in the English language. Emily Dickenson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Langston Hughes, Carl Sandberg, Ogden Nash, Marilyn Singer, Sylvia Plath and many, many, many more, making The Tree That Time Built an absolutely wonderful -- and perhaps essential? -- contribution to children’s literature. A nice addition: the included CD allows kids to hear many of the poets included in the book read from their own work. If you and your child care about the environment and are interested in books for children, you are quite likely to enjoy The Tree That Time Built. -- Sienna Powers

Willow by Julia Hoban (Dial) 329 pages
Even in a year when books for young adults was the most dynamic portion of the market, Julia Hoban’s debut novel was a stand-out. You don’t have to read very far to understand why. Willow is brutally -- even shockingly -- honest. The book is about a cutter, the title’s Willow, who is trapped in a life she didn’t expect when her parents die in a car crash: they were too drunk to drive and Willow was at the wheel. Where do you go from there? Despair, dysfunction, desperation. While the topic, and much of Hoban’s handling of it, is appropriately dark, we encounter just enough love and light to make this a deeply satisfying book. There is little here of the moralistic. Willow’s cutting is real and logically symptomatic within her situation. Willow is unforgettable. -- Sienna Powers

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Blogger Memento Vivere said...

I'm disappointed that The Knife of Never Letting Go is not on this list. Although sometimes described as young adult fiction I found it quite dark and often wondered how suitable for young adults it is. Nonetheless, a brilliant book, excellent story. Some of the best writing I've come across lately. Would love it if you could review it.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010 at 4:20:00 AM PST  

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