Friday, December 16, 2011

Best Books of 2011: Books for Children

This is the children’s book segment of January Magazine’s Best Books of 2011 feature. You can see other sections as follows: Best Fiction, Best Non-Fiction, Best Art & Culture, Best Biography, Best Cookbooks, Best Science Fiction/Fantasy, Best Crime Fiction (part I) and Best Crime Fiction (part II).

A Sword in Her Hand by Jean-Claude van Rijckeghem and Pat van Beirs (Annick Press)
A Sword in Her Hand is deliciously refreshing. No vampires or werewolves, and not a zombie in sight. In their place, political intrigue in 14th century Flanders through the eyes of a strong-willed, wrong-born young woman. Aimed for readers aged 12 and up, A Sword in Her Hand is sufficiently satisfying to please the most demanding reader. Well-paced and well-translated (by award-winning translator John Nieuwenhuizen) the book finds Marguerite growing up under the eye of her disapproving father, the Count of Flanders, who is perpetually disappointed in his daughter for not being the son he needs. In a way, Marguerite becomes the son he can never have: competing fiercely in the violently male world of medieval Flanders. She does so until her father once again intervenes: coming forward with unacceptable plans for his daughter’s future in order to further his own political ambitions. This one has it all: romance, adventure, excitement. It’s a very special book. -- Sienna Powers

Bless This Mouse by Lois Lowry (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Bless This Mouse by two time Newberry medalist, Lois Lowry is an engaging story of a band of churchmice who live under the gentle rule of Mouse Mistress Hildegarde at Saint Bartholomew’s. Intended for middle grade children, Bless This Mouse manages an involving story of mice in danger from both human discovery and the annual Blessing of the Animals day when the church will be filled with creatures, including cats! Lowry’s charming tale is illustrated by Caldecott Medal-winning illustrator (for My Friend Rabbit) Eric Rohman. The package is perfect: a very compelling tale enhanced by beautiful pencil drawings. A new classic is born. -- Monica Stark

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Cabin Fever by Jeff Kinney (Amulet Books)
The charm of Jeff Kinney’s Wimpy Kid books is hard to define: certainly you don’t see it on first pass. The illustrations, also by author Jeff Kinney, are deceptively simple. In a way, the stories are, as well. In the sixth book in the series, middle schooler Greg Heffley is getting apprehensive about Christmas and figures that one slip up might result in no presents at all. Then a blizzard turns up and snows the family in, giving them the opportunity to ruminate on what Christmas really means. But it’s the Diary of a Wimpy Kid, so there are plenty of laughs and jokes… and even a few lessons sewn in along the way. I’ve found all of these books entertaining. But my kids? They eat them up. Last month, Kinney told January Magazine that the lifespan of the series will most likely be between book seven and ten. I hope not! As far as I’m concerned, he can make like Sue Grafton and keep going for 20-odd years. -- Monica Stark

The Elephant Mountains by Scott Ely (Orca Books)
Faced with a natural disaster, how would you react? What would become of your family? The Elephant Mountains doesn’t begin to answer that question, but it does take a slice of it when a devastating flood threatens to put most of the South under water. Stephen is 15 and spending the summer with his father near Lake Pontchartrain when a new hurricane arrives and the leveees along the Mississippi fail. When Stephen’s father is killed he is on his own, until he meets Angela, a college student whose parents have also been killed. They set out together, Stephen to look for his mother, Angela simply trying to survive. There is brutality here and there is hope, but the hope is more difficult to find. The pacing is intense, the language simple but effective. Reluctant readers may just find themselves swept along by an intensely good and well-told story. -- Jones Atwater

The Future of Us by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler (Razorbill/Penguin)
It’s been a year of big books, but somehow this small book, a book for young readers, really touched me. If you take the best insights from Stephen King’s recent big book, 11/22/63, and boiled it down to a much simpler story about two high schoolers who find something extraordinary on their 1996 PC, this is what you get. Emma and Josh are normal teenagers, friends for years, facing a world that’s about the change beneath their feet as they look to college and the rest of their lives. One day, Emma slips one of those AOL CD-ROMs into her PC -- and something happens. Suddenly, she’s looking not at AOL, but at Facebook. Circa 2011. What? In 11/22/63, there was a portal in a diner. In The Future of Us, it’s a wrinkle in technology that lets two kids look at social networking before it even existed. Quickly, Josh and Emma learn what Facebook is all about -- and they see who they will be 15 years ahead in their lives. Who will they be married to? Who are their kids? Who are their friends? Are they happy? We take these things almost for granted today, when we post the most mundane things. But what do those things say about us if we step back from them? If we take them at face value? What do our posts reveal? What Josh and Emma learn is that even the tiniest steps they take in 1996 can have serious ramifications on what happens in their futures. Having lunch with a different friend on any given day, and the effect could be that your whole life is different than it was yesterday. You marry a different man. The kids you read about yesterday do not even exist today. These are big ideas costumed inside a book that seems lightweight -- but believe me, it only seems that way. The Future of Us, while entertaining, is also a keen, insightful look at how technology reveals us in ways we perhaps have never stopped to really think about. And at the same time, it takes the notion of being young again but knowing what we know now to a whole new level. Superb. -- Tony Buchsbaum

Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley (Pan Macmillan Australia)
Cath Crowley has been writing gentle, funny books about teenagers for some years, beginning with The Life And Times of Gracie Faltrain, about a girl soccer player. She knows about teenagers and how they think, having been a teacher herself. This one, which was winning awards in Australia all through 2011, is about older teens. Lucy is in love with mysterious graffiti artist Shadow, and on the last night of Year 12, she demands that her schoolfriend, Ed, whose nose she broke on their first date, take her around the parts of Melbourne where Shadow has been seen. Ed has a secret: he is Shadow, but if he tells Lucy, will she still like him? Because he likes her. A lot. Dylan loves Daisy, but he threw eggs over her on “muckup day,” an end-of-Year-12 tradition. Graffiti Moon is more than romantic comedy, though. Over the course of one night, these teens come to know about themselves and each other, and those of them who have artistic gifts express them. This book fully deserves every award it has won this year. I love it! -- Sue Bursztynski

Inheritance by Christopher Paolini (Knopf)
“In the beginning, there were dragons: proud, fierce, and independent. Their scales were like gems, and all who gazed upon them despaired, for their beauty was great and terrible.” Inheritance is the fourth and final book in wunderkind Christopher Paolini’s heart-stoppingly good series. It finishes this deeply imaginative story in a satisfying and completely creative way. This fourth book is as good or better as any in this wonderful series. I’m sorry to see it end, but the author did a terrific job finishing it properly. This will be a classic children’s series, mark my words. -- Lincoln Cho

Kindred by Tammar Stein (Knopf)
“The first time I meet an angel, it is Raphael and I am eighteen.” So begins Kindred (Knopf) where author Tammar Stein (Light Years, High Dive) takes paranormal to a different place than what we’ve commonly been seeing. For one thing, there is not a vampire in sight. Kindred is a book that explores the possibility of angels. Stein here is tackling some difficult material. After all, how do you broach the touched-by-God without accidentally ending up with a Christian book on your hands? It’s delicate, at best. A big fat mess, at worst. But Stein manages the uplifting material without making readers feel as though they’re being sneakily lifted. Kindred is just a very good, very smart and very well-executed book for young readers which, despite various spiritual encounters and regular visits from archangels manages to keep its feet firmly on the ground. -- Linda L. Richards

The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde (HarperCollins)
Anyone who has read even a single novel by Jasper Fforde (The Eyre Affair, Lost in a Good Book, et al) would recognize that extending his reach to young readers is really not much of a leap. At all. His new series for teens begins with The Last Dragonslayer and is narrated by 15-year-old Jennifer Strange who runs an employment agency for sorcerers and soothsayers in a world where the magic is starting to fade away due to governmental regulation. This is a work that is absolutely typical of this wonderful author: farcical, satirical and just the tiniest bit crazy: all of the Fforde trademarks are here. The down-side for Fforde fans will be availability: the book came out in the UK in 2010, in Canada this fall, but won’t be out in the US until 2012. Meanwhile, the second book in the series, The Song of the Quarkbeast, is out now in the UK and I want it! London calling, because I can hardly wait. -- Sienna Powers

Louis the Tiger Came from the Sea by Michal Kozlowski, illustrated by Sholto Walter (Annick Press)
Though, as far as I can tell, Louis the Tiger Came from the Sea owes absolutely nothing to Yann Martel and Life of Pi, when I first saw the book, that’s what I thought of. But this tiger -- Louis -- is less talkative and, for the most part, more sleepy. In fact, it is the tiger’s snoring that first wake Ali and Ollie. They see something huge in the grass. Is it a giant carrot? A pumpkin? But it proves to be a sleeping tiger. “He looks like he came from the sea,” said Ali. They spend a lot of time plotting how to get him back to the sea while the tiger spends a lot of time lounging around on the hearth rug then -- inexplicably -- taking a bath in the family tub. Eventually, the family decide to dress as sea creatures and lead Louis the tiger back to the sea, at which point Louis swims away. Unless he doesn’t. It’s really a lot of gorgeous silly. Read this one aloud to your little ones: they’ll eat it up. -- Monica Stark

My Name Is Elizabeth! by Annika Dunklee, illustrated by Matthew Forsythe (Kids Can Press)
Elizabeth loves her name. She loves that it’s long. And she loves that there is a queen named after her. But she does not love it when people call her things besides her name: Lizzy, Liz, Betsy and other variations. And she works out a way to get people to get it right. My Name Is Elizabeth is a fully charming package. Almost everyone can understand why this strong child would want to be called by her proper name. Award-winning illustrator and comic book artist, Matthew Forsythe, captures the energy of author Annika Dunklee’s debut story. I loved Forsythe’s retro-tinged vision of Elizabeth’s world. Collectors and kids will love this one. -- India Wilson

Nowhere Else on Earth: Standing Tall for the Great Bear Rainforest by Caitlyn Vernon (Orca Books)
It’s exciting watching a generation of children being raised who are completely aware of the environment and our impact on it. It’s in the air they breathe, in a way and it is through them that we can hope for better things for our Earth in the future. These are the things I contemplated as I read Caitlyn Vernon’s Nowhere Else on Earth with my little person. With a background in biology and volunteer hours with Sierra Club, Vernon has a place to stand when it comes to the topic she tackles here: a child’s tour of Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest. Filled with facts, the voices of other children, great photographs and thoughts on action and ecology, Nowhere Else on Earth is a 21st century look at the beauties of the region as well as the dangers it faces from a world gone mad. “Learning about the state of our earth can be upsetting,” Vernon writes candidly at one point adding soon after that, “The good news is that doing one small thing can make a big difference.” The first small thing might be making certain this book gets into the hands of the children who will manifest that change. -- India Wilson

Room Enough for Daisy by Debby Waldman and Rita Feutl, illustrated by Cindy Revell (Orca Books)
Room Enough for Daisy is bright and bold and perfectly engaging. For a book in this format, there is a lot of text and a very well-spun story. There’s lots going on here and many reasons for readers aged four to eight to return. Daisy is lucky to live a life of splendid abundance. With her birthday party coming in just three weeks she demands a bigger room in order to make way for the gaggle of birthday loot she’s anticipating. In the time leading up to her birthday, Daisy’s mother gently helps her see that less can actually be more and she ends up going through her things and donating a box of her unwanted possessions to the Mitzvah Day sale. The book ends with a page entitled “What’s Mitzah Day?” that explains it in a way children will understand. The book was inspired by an Eastern European folktale about a house that’s too small, the moral here is present but not overwhelming and the illustrations are colorful, bright and offer young readers lots to look at. This is a very good book for young children in every way. -- Monica Stark

Shelter: A Mickey Bolitar Novel by Harlan Coben (Penguin)
Fans of Harlan Coban’s works of crime fiction for adults might have met Myron Bolitar’s nephew, Mickey, in Live Wire, published earlier this year. Shelter continues Mickey’s story but with a twist: this novel is intended for young readers and though that may be the intention, it’s a cinch that fans of crime fiction everywhere will appreciate the subtleties and sophistication Coben brings to all his work. If you did read Live Wire, you will encounter some familiar ground here. This time out, however, the story is told from Mickey’s perspective and perspective, as we discover, can be everything. But Shelter isn’t simply a rehashing of a Coben story already told. Not very far into the book, young Mickey is faced with a mystery of his own to solve when a girl he’s sweet on at school goes missing without a trace. With over 50 million copies of his novels in print, Coban has relatively rapidly become an international favorite. This first young adult novel will certainly bring him an even great and wider readership. -- Sienna Powers

Six Weeks to Yehidah by Melissa Studdard (All Things That Matter)
“The thing you would notice most was the rain, how the rain fell and fell and never seemed to stop. The sky was constantly swollen with it, then birthing it, swollen, then birthing again, and the hills, like greedy babies, suckled up all that rain. They shone and glistened green as the backs of frogs on bright green lily pads.” The first thing to know about Six Weeks to Yehidah is that it’s beautiful. The writing is sharp and crisp and evocative. The prose is poetic, well-formed. All of that, and there’s a story, as well. A good one, worth sharing. Like Dorothy in the Land of Oz and Alice in her Wonderland, Annalise of the Verdant Hills is a fish out of water in a strange and wondrous place. The author says that the book is, in many ways, “about tolerance and acceptance of ourselves and others. It was also important to me to share certain wisdom traditions with children, and I absolutely knew that the best way to do this was through narrative.” Despite this, Six Weeks to Yehidah manages to be a compelling journey that leaves young readers asking: might there be still more? -- India Wilson

So Shelley by Ty Roth (Delacorte)
It’s possible that So Shelley is the smartest YA novel you will ever read. The writing is sharp and edgy. The premise is intelligent and engaging. But the story? It’ll blow you away. So Shelley takes the most romantic of the romantic poets and reimagines them as contemporary teenagers. Think about it for a moment and you’ll realize: it’s not such a reach. Debut author Ty Roth teaches literature and English composition at the high school level, so he understands all these moves: both the machinations of the teenage mind and the nuances of English literature. One could say that he’s studied them both. So here’s the set-up: what if Lord Byron, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley were American teenagers today? How would their talents manifest and their foibles come forth? Roth attacks his topic with verve and without gloves. Sophisticated teen readers will enjoy So Shelley: the coming of age of this particular set of characters is not for the faint of heart. -- Monica Stark

Spy, Spy Again: True Tales of Failed Espionage by Tina Holdcroft (Annick)
“No one ever said that spying was easy,” author Tina Holdcraft advises as Spy, Spy Again gets underway. She goes on to tell us that she will present 20 “botched and bungled spy jobs from around the globe.” Holdcraft trolls through history to tell her stories of spycraft gone bad. With Holdcroft’s own vivid illustrations brightening up her already vibrant prose, there’s a lot here for even reluctant readers to like. Children will love Holdcroft’s graphic, cartoony approach, not to mention her fabulous tales of misadventure. -- Monica Stark

Ten Birds by Cybéle Young (Kids Can Press)
Each one of the illustrations in Cybéle Young’s Ten Birds is a work of art worth framing. In fact, if this art is not available in that form somewhere, a tremendous opportunity is being lost. Careful pen and ink renderings, beautifully reproduced make Ten Birds a work of art as well as a fun and creative counting book for little ones. There is a story here, and it’s just as enchanting as Young’s fantastic art. A sweet, engaging and beautiful book. -- India Wilson

You’re Finally Here by Mélanie Watt (Kids Can Press)
I’m always on the lookout for children’s picture books that will not only enchant little ones, but might cause the ears of collectors to perk up. You’re Finally Here is such a book. Like her previous creations, Chester, Scaredy Squirrel and Leon the Chameleon, Mélanie Watt’s impatient and slightly maniacal bunny is whimsical and engaging, even though he doesn’t actually get very much done. The bunny (and we never learn his actual name) is waiting for you, the reader to show up so you and he can have some fun. He alternates between excited, impatient, angry, elated… really every possible bunny emotion and perhaps a few beyond. Watt has written a string of charming children’s books in a relatively short period. Each addition to her list seems more polished and confident than the last. You’re Finally Here is no exception. A winner all the way ’round. -- Monica Stark

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Anonymous Sue Bursztynski said...

I have to agree about A Sword In Her Hand (which was, by the way, translated by John Nieuenhausen, husband of our local children's book guru, Agnes Nieuenhausen). It's beautiful writing and believable history and who is to say the young duchess wasn't like that? I was going to donate it to my library, but couldn't part with it!

Monday, December 19, 2011 at 12:13:00 AM PST  
Anonymous Canada said...

I have read all of the Harlen Coben novels and have enjoyed them all . And now comes Shelter , labelled as a Young Readers Novel . It has a comic book plot, it is not entertaining and the ending is just stupid. The only comment my nephew made was -IT SUCKS ands I agree. Mr Coben is a master novelist - lets hope he goes back to writing great entertaining tales and forgets plans of a Shelter follow up.

Sunday, May 20, 2012 at 8:21:00 PM PDT  

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