Sunday, December 19, 2010

Best Books of 2010: Books for Children and Young Adults

Editor’s note: We kick off our Best of 2010 feature here with the year’s top books for children. Look for other categories of 2010’s top books from January Magazine over the coming week. To see how books were chosen, see the Best Books of 2010 anchor piece here. -- LLR

Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld (Simon Pulse)
Behemoth is simply one of the most gorgeous books you’re likely to see in this format. From the strikingly beautiful cover design, through the remarkable end-papers, the clear and careful typography and even Keith Thompson’s wonderfully illustrative pen and ink sketches. All of these things are indicative of the care and thought that’s gone into every semi-colon of Behemoth, the second installment in Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series. Though Behemoth is aimed precisely at the young adult market, steampunk fans everywhere are likely to enthuse about the book that confirms what I’ve been suspecting for a while: steampunk is back, but with a vengeance. Behemoth offers up the further adventures of Alek, heir to the Austrian throne and, when we last saw him, prisoner of war and Deryn, a girl who has posed as a boy to gain entrance to the British Air Service. In the best traditions of steampunk, the world Westerfeld has created here is familiar, yet everything is slightly askew. There is about Behemoth the scent of alternate history, but with a definite difference. A high stakes adventure, with just a dusting of romance. We’ve always known Westerfeld was a contender, but Behemoth really brings that home. -- Lincoln Cho

Ferradiddledumday by Becky Mushko, illustrated by Bruce Rae (Cedar Creek)
A charming and surprising retelling of the classic children’s fairy-tale. Rumpelstilskin gets a new -- and Appalachian -- lease on life with Pushcart Prize nominated author and retired teacher, Becky Mushko. Wool spinning maven Gillie is leading a happy life in the Blue Ridge Mountains until a hailstorm wipes out the cash crop of her family farm. When Gillie and her father are in the depths of despair, an odd little man gives Gillie the power to spin hay into gold and everything is wonderful again, until the little man demands his payment. Though there’s a lot in Ferradiddledumday to like, those for whom the Appalachians resonate will find some especially warm moments. Teachers and home-schoolers will find a terrific bonus in former teacher Mushko’s study and discussion guides. -- Aaron Blanton

The FitzOsbornes In Exile by Michelle Cooper (Random House Australia)
This is the sequel to A Brief History Of Montmaray, the next installment in the journals of Sophie, a princess of the tiny island kingdom of Montmaray before the start of World War II. The first novel was set in Montmaray and centered around the arrival of the Nazis. The royal family was driven into exile in England. This novel is set in England, where Sophie, her sister and her cousin are now living with an aunt who had married a rich Englishman and is living a wealthy widowhood. For the first time, they’re living as real aristocrats instead of feeding the goats and cleaning the castle, and mingling with famous historical figures. Pre-war upper-crust England is seen through Sophie’s eyes, even as her socialist cousin Veronica is embarrassing their aunt by the people with whom she’s mingling. She’s even going out with a Jew! This delightful novel teaches history without hitting you over the head with it, and you can believe in the characters. Sophie and her family and friends have their own troubles, trying to get help in recovering their home from the Nazis, but guess what? This is the England of Chamberlain and other appeasers. There’s adventure as well as history here, as the young royals take matters into their own hands. I can’t wait for the next novel, but meanwhile, this is a great holiday read. -- Sue Bursztynski

Frankenstein: A Pop-Up Book by Sam Ita (Sterling Innovation)
Though it hasn’t had the impact of Moby Dick, the first pop up book by Sam Ita, Frankenstein is just as well thought out and just as clever as that earlier entry into the pop-up book wars. I anticipate that one of the challenges with this book might just be in where to place it. Though Sterling is marketing the book as juvenile fiction, the graphic novel vibe of Ita’s presentation combined with the natural darkness of the story don’t make placing this book a no-brainer. And though the book is naturally abridged (it is only eight pages long, after all) it manages to stay remarkably true to Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel. Graphic artist and paper engineer Sam Ita’s commissions have included paper engineered products for Discovery Channel, TBS and Target. Besides Moby Dick, Ita has also created a pop-up book of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. In a way, it seems silly to even call these pop-up books because they're so much more. Delicately designed paper confections intended to delight and inspire. -- David Middleton

Little Paradise by Gabrielle Wang (Penguin Australia)
Mirabel is a Chinese girl in wartime Melbourne. Her family has been in Australia since the gold rushes, but they are still Chinese, in culture and lifestyle, and her father is a strong supporter of the Nationalist government back home. When Chinese soldier Jin Jing -- JJ -- arrives from Shanghai, Mirabel knows she is in love. When JJ is posted back to China, Mirabel follows – and so does adventure. Little Paradise is a very visual story which fully deserves to be turned into a film or TV mini-series. I read some of it to my literacy class of mostly immigrant students. They loved it, but although most of my class was female, the audience I thought might most enjoy this book, it was the young man who asked if he might borrow and finish it. Who’d have thought a boy would like it so much? Little Paradise is a lovely, gentle story, beautifully-written and well worth buying, whether for yourself or your teenager. -- Sue Bursztynski

Lizards in the Sky: Animals Where You Least Expect Them by Claire Eamer (Annick Press)
The worst thing about Lizards in the Sky is the title. It had me expecting a completely different book, right up until the time I was deeply immersed in it. The book is not about lizards. Well, not exclusively, because it does have lizards in it. It has lots of other things, too. Frogs that bring their own water on journeys. Snakes in the sky. Mangrove Killfish who live in logs. Deer that live in streams. The animals science writer Claire Eamer talks about in Lizards in the Sky are mostly not well known and all live or hang out in places where you wouldn’t expect to see them. Eamer is clear and to the point. She manages to convey her (mostly quite unexpected) information in a way that is entirely understandable without ever talking down to her young readers. Many authors who create non-fiction for children don’t have that gift: Eamer does. There’s more good stuff, too: the design is bright and engaging, without being frenetic and it is well and sensibly organized. A very good index puts many (too many!) books for adults to shame and the bibliography shows an author who has really done her homework. Lizards in the Sky is a very good book. Aimed at kids ten and up, I’ll wager you’d be hard pressed to find an adult who wouldn’t learn something. -- Aaron Blanton

Mattoo, Let’s Play! by Irene Luxbacher (KidsCan Press)
Toronto illustrator Irene Luxbacher was responsible for the illustrations in the Governor General Award shortlisted children’s book The Imaginary Garden from 2009 and she’s illustrated several other books for children, however Mattoo, Let’s Play! is her authorial debut. Anyone who know about kids and cats will smile when they recognize the main characters in the book. Ruby, the boisterous little girl and Mattoo, the cat who makes herself scarce when Ruby gets rambunctious. As a result, Ruby thinks the cat is shy. Ruby and her friend, Clemente, wait quietly in an imaginary jungle for the shy cat. Their imagination creates the cat as “the fiercest, most wild, most wonderful creature of all -- the mysterious spotted king of the jungle!” This leads to play which leads to Mattoo falling into line and playing and purring like a kitten. The story is charming but what sets it apart for me are Luxbacher’s rich and wonderful illustrations. I always look for illustrations a child can get lost in: pictures that have depth and even more going on than what you see at first. Mattoo, Let’s Play! is all these things. More. Children aged three to seven will enjoy it. -- Monica Stark

Moment of Truth Book 5: The Laws Of Magic by Michael Pryor (Random House Australia)

In 2010, we saw the fifth novel in Michael Pryor’s delightful Laws of Magic steampunk series.
There’s a war on. Aubrey Fitzwilliam, son of the Prime Minister of Albion, and his friends George and Caroline, who have spent the last four volumes trying to prevent it, have been recruited by the Albionish secret service. War is bad enough in itself, but if this one goes on, it will lead to the immortality of the evil Dr. Tremaine, former Sorcerer Royal, who has no problem with wiping out as many lives as it takes to perform the magic ritual that will extend his own.
The trio returns to Gallia, scene of their earlier adventures (Heart Of Gold), this time to set up a base for a team of remote magical observers. But nothing ever goes the way it’s meant to go in Aubrey’s world. All bets are off when the three find out what is being manufactured in a Holmland factory belonging to Baron von Grolman. Go read it. As always, it’s funny and exciting and the characters are ones you care about. -- Sue Bursztynski

Ninja Cowboy Bear Presents the Way of the Ninja by David Bruins and Hilary Leung (KidsCan Press)
In a sea of terrific childrens’ picture books, Ninja Cowboy Bear Presents the Way of the Ninja does more than hold its own. The story is positive, yet not sickeningly sweet, the illustrations are amazing, the production superb. All in all, it's a very good book. But it’s not an isolated event. As far as I know, The Way of the Ninja is the second book in the The Ninja Cowboy Bear series offering Leung’s tight and engaging illustrations combined with Bruins’ convincing tales. The first book in the series, The Legend of Ninja Cowboy Bear published well in 2009, introduced (as you might guess) the ninja, the cowboy and the bear, all of whom we meet up with again in this year’s entry. This time out, the gentle lesson is about play that gets out of hand (and as you can imagine, no one really understands play that gets out of hand until they’ve played with a ninja, a cowboy and a bear!). In the end the trio resolve their differences in a loving and amicable way though, in the meantime, there are a few tense moments. The illustrations, like the storytelling and the story, are rich and gentle. A couple of terrific yet criminally overlooked books for children. -- Lincoln Cho

Nonna’s Book of Mysteries by Mary Osborne (Lake Street Press)
Emilia Serafina is a talented young painter living in Florence during the Renaissance. She wants to train to be an artist, but her gender prohibits it. When she receives a book called A Manual to the Science of Alchemy that once belonged to her grandmother, it suddenly seems as though she may be able to remove some of the obstacles that have stood in her way. Though magic is in the air, Nonna’s Book of Mysteries is all girl power. It’s a story about dealing with the consequences of the choices we make and about taking responsibility for our own actions. Nonna’s Book of Mysteries is a beautifully written, intelligent book. Those who fall in love with it should be aware: a prequel called Alchemy’s Daughter, is in the offing. The two will be the first half of what is intended to be a four-part series. -- India Wilson

Rat by Fernanda Eberstadt (Knopf)
A new millennium coming-of-age story told in a frankly lyrical and literary voice. Fifteen-year-old Celia -- nicknamed Rat -- lives in rural Spain with her mother, a self-involved free spirit. When the little family adopts the nine-year-old son of a dead friend, Celia is at first resentful, but she comes to love Morgan and feel protective of him. So much so that when her mother’s boyfriend abuses the child, Celia first fights the man, then takes Morgan and runs away to England to search out Celia’s biological father, a man she has never met. For two children out in the world alone, this is an adventure that is epic in scope. Eberstadt’s eye is sharp, the details she shares rich and, as she tells it, there is never an absurd moment in two juvenile runaways crossing Europe and the Channel alone together, searching for freedom, safety and -- for Rat -- a sense of belonging. Rat is a memorable story told in an astonishingly clear voice. -- Sienna Powers

The Sea Wolves: Living Wild in the Great Bear Rainforest by Ian McAllister and Nicholas Read (Orca)
The Sea Wolves is one of those books aimed at children that almost shouldn’t be: I can’t imagine the reader who wouldn’t enjoy this one. It’s the well-told story of the wolves who inhabit the Great Bear Rainforest along British Columbia’s central coast. They are deeply social and highly intelligent and differ in many ways from their wolfen cousins in other parts of the world. The Sea Wolves is an enchanting and deeply interesting book, dense with well-shared information and informative sidebars, not to mention some very good photographs by co-author McAllister who was a founding director of the Raincoast Conservation Society and Pacific Wild, as well as an award-winning filmmaker and photographer. Co-author Nicholas Read is a journalist and journalism instructor who has worked with the animal rights organization, Animal Aid. Young naturalists will enjoy the book almost as much as their parents will. I can imagine this one lending itself to family reading and information sharing. -- Monica Stark

Sylvia Long’s Thumbelina (Chronicle Books)

Thumbelina is one of those perennial favorites that gets retold and redrawn with some regularity. The tiny little girl -- Thumbelina -- lost in the world, astonished at the size of towering insects, having conversations with mice and flying on the backs of birds. There’s so much here to recommend the book for retelling and re-visualizing that it happens quite often. But even in a veritable sea of Thumbelina books, award-winning illustrator Sylvia Long’s version is well worth seeking out and having a look over. The Arizona-based Long (Snug As A Bug, Alejandro’s Gift) creates beautiful, painterly illustrations that invite young readers to lose themselves in her lovely, visual world. Long has here also slightly modernized the text. But her changes are not intrusive and the whole package works exceedingly well. I would not be surprised if Thumbelina helped Long add another award to her growing collection. It’s a beautiful and worthwhile book that children will cherish, but which I suspect collectors will also covet. -- India Wilson

Trash by Andy Mulligan (David Fickling Books)
Trash is completely unexpected. Set in the near future, Trash has a somewhat post-apocalyptic feel, at least for main character Raphael Fernandez, a self-proclaimed “dumpster boy” who makes a living picking through the mountains of trash near a large city, perhaps Manilla in the Phillipines where author Andy Mulligan teaches at a prestigious private school. Raphael find something significant in the trash; something that will alter the trajectory of their languid lives. Trash moves with a furious thriller-like pace: there is danger, corruption and moral dilemmas aplenty. Young readers will be entranced by Raphael and his cunning friends, even while they may be shocked by the extreme poverty and hardship they find him in. As much as anything, the way in which Mulligan has chosen to share his story is responsible for the pace and ultimate clarity of Trash. Told in first person, from multiple viewpoints, these young voices lift the tension and hand it back and forth with all the breath-holding of a soccer match. In the end, it’s both the mystery and dichotomy that are dead-interesting here. That, as the book promises, humility and humanity can flourish amid heaping piles of refuse. A surprisingly uplifting book. -- Aaron Blanton

Watch This Space: Designing, Defending and Sharing Public Spaces by Hadley Dyer and Marc Ngui (Kids Can Press)
Watch This Space may well be one of the most intelligent and thoughtful books I’ve ever seen aimed at children. Granted, I may feel that because I am a designer and so am always glad when the world considers universal issues of design, but I don’t think it’s that, or only that, at least. What is pubic space? How are public spaces shared? How are they designed? How can you, as an individual, lift and share this ideal? What makes a great public space? When is graffiti street art and when is it a crime? Just posing these questions to ten to fourteen year olds seems like a huge step to me. Actually attempting to answer? That's a bonus. “Remember. public space is yours,” Dyer writes at one point. “You have every right to get pissed off about sold space, ugly space, unused space and wasted space. But ownership comes with responsibility and that means doing something when you see a problem.” Good advice for all of us. -- David Middleton

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Public spaces for children? Fantastic!

Saturday, January 1, 2011 at 11:58:00 PM PST  

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