What I Read in 2016: YA

I read a LOT of fab YA this year, some of which I won’t go into here but you should definitely pick up (A Torch Against the Night! Empire of Storms! The Sun is Also a Star!). This list is by no means exhaustive, but here are some YA titles that made me think, slipped under the radar, stood apart from the crowd, or otherwise caught my attention in 2016.

Herstory: Historical fiction featuring women’s stories 

Ruta Sepetys (self-proclaimed Seeker of Lost Stories) writes with such emotional poignancy and respect for his historical subjects and Salt to the Sea is her best novel yet. Her historical fiction is so good it often busts out YA territory and is included in adult round-ups. If you haven’t had the chance to read her yet I’m not sure what you’re waiting for…don’t you LIKE joy?

There is so much to love about Outrun the Moon. Boarding school setting? Check. Amazing scene in which a young Chinese-American girl negotiates a place at a prestigious, previously all-white girls’ boarding school with an Old White Man? Check.  Survival narrative based in an actual historical event (the San Francisco earthquake of 1906)? Check. Stacey Lee’s book hit all of my sweet spots and is a sweeping, engaging adventure story.

Out of this World: Slightly under-the-radar sci-fi & fantasy 

Where Futures End was a twisty, mind-bending collection of interconnected short stories about what happens when two parallel worlds realize each other’s existence. I’ve never read another YA novel quite like it and while it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, those who like it (*raises hand*) are fanatical about it. By far the most original book I read this year and especially good if you’re in a reading rut. I can’t wait to see what author Parker Peevyhouse does next.

By all rights Julia Vanishes should be The Next Big YA fantasy series. This first book in a planned series captured the hearts of fantasy-lovers and non-fantasy readers alike, which is not an easy task. Catherine Egan (another Canadian author) effortlessly blends a pseudo-Victorian England with witch lore, fantasy tropes and a good old-fashioned mystery. I have yet to meet a reader who didn’t fall in love with the caustic- and possibly magical- spy, the eponymous Julia.

Truth & Beauty: Writers who remind you that even terrible situations can be beautifully written

Still Life with Tornado broke my heart into six sharp little pieces. Teenage Amy meets two younger versions of herself and one older version of herself and the four of them try to pinpoint where exactly things started to spiral out of control in her life. This is a book about how an entire family is affected by an abusive member and the complicated healing process. A little bit existential, a little magic realism, this is a hugely impressive and innovative work by A.S. King.

Trilby Kent is one of Canada’s most decorated writers of young people’s fiction and Once in a Town Called Moth is my favourite of her books (so far).  She brings a poet’s eye for detail and specifics to this coming of age story that unfolds with the pacing of a mystery. The narrative goes back and forth between an isolated Mennonite community in Bolivia and contemporary Toronto. Both streams are excellent but I particularly loved how Kent portrays Toronto.

What it Feels Like For a Girl: Contemporary YA dealing with sexual assault, violence & rage 

The Female of the Species walks the line between contemporary realism and allegory in the best possible way. There have been a number of YA novels in the last little while that explore female anger and this one presents rage in all its shades and temperatures. Author Mindy McGinnis did not hold anything back in her visceral descriptions, either. Lines from this book will stay with me forever.

Canuck author E.K. Johnston is having an excellent year with three new books: NYT bestseller Ahsoka;  Spindle, the follow-up to her lush A Thousand Nights; and my fave of the three, Exit, Pursued by a Bear, which has so many starred reviews it’s impossible to ignore.  Unlike Johnston’s previous work, this one is based firmly in the reality of contemporary teenhood, specifically what happens after team captain Hermione Winters is drugged and raped at cheer camp. Frank discussions about faith, blame, abortion, and surviving abound. This is a fierce book; Winters has no time for small-minded, pity-filled or suspicious people or shame.

Middle Grade Gift Suggestions 2016

Last week I got to talk to one of my favourite people, Ann Foster, about middle grade fiction. When not working at the Saskatoon Public Library recco-ing kids and teen books, she is writing about fashion in TV over at You Know You Love Fashion (currently chronicling the enviable wardrobe of Phryne Fisher) and spearheading a number of podcasts, including Radio Book Club and You Were Going to be Fantastic.

Ann and I met on a book jury and we still love to find reasons to talk about books. Now you can hear us do that in this episode of Radio Book Club. The topic was near and dear to my heart (middle grade!) and I was happy to wax poetic about my fail-safe picks for this holiday, featured above.

Grab a cup of your favourite hot seasonal beverage and take a listen:

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/smy9s-655461

Follow Ann on twitter to learn about her many bookish and pop-culture endeavors

Middle Grade Monday: Ghosts

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Cat is not at all excited to be moving to foggy, seaside Bahia de la Luna, particularly when she learns that it is a sort of capital for ghosts. But doctors have agreed that it is a better place for her sister Maya, who has Cystic Fibrosis. Cat is torn between wanting to make new friends and create a life that isn’t defined by her sister’s diagnosis and the visceral need to protect her sister at all costs. With a focus on familial relationships, a diverse cast, and the stirrings of first love, this much-awaited new graphic novel is classic Raina Telgemeier.

One of Telgemeier’s greatest strengths is her nuanced portrayal of the relationships between sisters (see SmileSisters and Drama). Cat loves Maya, but confesses to wanting something that is hers alone. Her guilt is ever-present and burdensome. One of my favourite scenes is a dialogue-less sequence following Maya’s return from the hospital in which Cat plays Maya her favourite song and the girls snuggle up together in bed. Unlike Drama and Sisters, the sisters in Ghosts are fictional, but the dialogue and tiny moments between Cat and Maya are so authentic that one still gets the sense that Telgemeier is mining her own experience.

Of all her novels to date, Ghosts is the darkest, touching on themes of death and mortality. It is made clear that Maya is not going to get better, a fact she accepts more than her family members. Of the two sisters, Cat is by far the most cautious, wanting to keep Maya way from even a hint of danger. But Maya’s sense of her limited mortality conversely makes her seek adventure, action, and fun, recognizing that if she has a limited about of time on earth then she’s going to make the most of it. Her favourite mantra is a song from an animated movie, a thinly disguised version of Frozen‘s Let it Go, entitled Let it Out. Her desire to befriend the ghosts is particularly poignant, knowing that her curiosity about the afterlife is grounded in the reality that she may be joining them soon.

A life-long and ardent Halloween enthusiast, I very much enjoyed the excitement leading up to Halloween and the midnight Day of the Dead party. The residents of Bahia de la Luna are decidedly ghost-friendly and the interaction between the living and the dead is when what has previously felt like a contemporary story veers off into fantasy. Among a number of other ghosts, Cat befriends her neighbour Carlos’ long-dead uncle, who then takes her flying.The energy, excitement and camaraderie of the party scenes reminded me of the Remains of the Day scene in Tim Burton’s woefully underrated movie, The Corpse Bride.

The book includes an extensive afterward from the author in which she provides more info about Cystic Fibrosis, Dia de los Muertos and touches on her own family tragedy that in part inspired the story. Telgemeier’s millions of rabid fans will not be disappointed. Ghosts is another touching, engaging and highly consumable addition to Telgemeier’s growing middle grade canon.

Ghosts is available now from Graphix, an imprint of Scholastic

Middle Grade Monday: Two Naomis

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It’s awkward enough watching your parent date, but the situation is much, much worse when the daughter of your parent’s new SO is not only the same age but has the same name as you. Such is the premise for Two Naomis, a charming story about Naomi E and Naomi M (who ends up taking on the “elegant” name Naomi Marie), unlikely friends and (potentially) future sisters.

The premise is a throwback to classic late 80s & early 90s contemporary middle grade, the kind of literature Judy Blume, Ann M. Martin and Paula Danziger were writing about; everyday kids dealing with everyday situations. Both Naomis are “average” kids, if I can use such a vague term here. No one has suffered major trauma or has significant hardships. They both have loving families and friends. But despite the classic “issue” driven premise,  this is modern New York City. The girls have cell phones, attend a coding class, and use Skype.

I am always fascinated by authors who work together. In this case, Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and Audrey Vernick alternated chapters, each tackling their own Naomi and her corresponding world. You can read more about how this process worked over at Phil Bildner’s blog. The big challenge here is to distinguish between the two Naomis. The reader will have no trouble doing so. Naomi E is an only child, Naomi-Marie has a (very precocious) little sister. Naomi E is white, Naomi-Marie is black, this obvious differences leads to a funny moment when Naomi Marie’s little sister Bree suggests they solve the two Naomi problem by calling them “Black Naomi” and “White Naomi.” I love Naomi E’s skepticism, her caution when it comes to friendship or big decisions, her tendency to be sarcastic. She doesn’t suffer fools gladly and doesn’t excite easily. Naomi Marie on the other hand is enthusiasm personified. She is a joiner, a leader, and very competitive. The girls’ personalities may be different but are quite complimentary, something they come to learn (and appreciate) over time.

This isn’t a story about divorce causing irreparable damage to a child. The parent-kid relationships are very positive. Both Naomis’ sets of parents are quite civil and seem to have had  amicable divorces. Although Naomi Marie lives with her mother, she sees her father frequently. Naomi E’s mother is away in LA working in film, and her absence is definitely felt by her daughter and is the root of some of her anxieties. They Skype, but Naomi E is starting to crack with the longing to see her mother, and plans are made for that to happen.

As a kid, I loved reading about what other kids lives were like at home. What after-school snacks did they eat? What were their bedtime routines? How did their family spend Saturday mornings, etc. There is something fascinating about peeking behind the curtain of someone else’s home life. I felt like this reading Two Naomis. This is a funny, frank and positive exploration of how two tweens deal with their parents’ dating.

Two Naomis is available now from HarperCollins.

Middle Grade Monday: Fall 2016 Preview

This has already been a staggeringly good year for middle grade (don’t call it a comeback), with personal favourites such as Raymie Nightingale, The Wild Robot, Look Out for the Fitzgerald Trouts, and Pax garnering all sorts of buzz and attention. Here is a sampling of the new kids on the block this fall:

Ghosts 

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Ghosts is probably my most anticipated read of the fall. When it comes to middle grade, Raina Telgemeier is the gold standard we all aspire to- funny, relatable, original, and lots of heart. Ghosts promises to delve into deeper and somewhat darker territory than Smile, Sisters, or Drama, but readers are always safe in Raina’s hands.

A Day of Signs and Wonders 2000px-Maple_Leaf

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Say the name ‘Kit Pearson’ to Canadian readers of a certain age and watch grown women turn into blubbering, starry-eyed tweens. She is as much a part of my childhood as Hypercolour T-shirts, slap bracelets, and the movie My Girl. Kit Pearson exploring the childhood of artist Emily Carr? Too perfect to be true

The Best Man

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Somehow Richard Peck, author of rich slices of Americana such as A Year Down Yonder and A Year in Chicago, has pulled off a pitch-perfect contemporary novel about a community-and one boy in particular- who have their biases checked when everyone’s new favourite teacher turns out to be gay.

The Inquisitor’s Tale

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If you’ve been following the buzz on this hotly anticipated novel from story-wizard Adam Gitwitz you’ll note that common themes among reviewers are “incomparable” and “hard to describe.” I have heard Adam speak about how religion is the last taboo in middle grade and he definitely gives readers a lot to chew on in this Medieval ensemble piece. I very much enjoyed the multiple narrators. Also, farting dragons.

The Secret Horses of Briar Hill

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I didn’t think this charmer could possibly stand up to the hype, but boy did it ever. This weeper is tinged with just enough magic realism to keep a reader guessing. Take The Secret Garden, set in during WWII, and throw in some winged horses for good measure. Deft prose and emotional resonance give this one the feel of a classic.

The Griffin of Darkwood  2000px-Maple_Leaf

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This latest offering from solid (if a little under-sung, IMO) Canadian author Becky Citra has a stellar cover and is getting good reviews. There is a strong Canadian tradition of gothic middle grade novels (The Nest, The Night Gardener, Flickers, The Swallow being just a few), and this seems to fit right in. Run-down castles, a side-kick who emulates his idol, Julia Child, AND the promise of griffins? Yes please.

Clara Humble and the Not-So-Super Powers 2000px-Maple_Leaf

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Most of the books on this list are middle or upper middle-grade, but Clara is appropriate for those younger readers in grades 3-5. How do you hook a reader for life? By offering them funny books featuring true-to-life scenarios with just enough imagination to delight. Featuring spot illustrations by Lisa Cinar, this is a spunky, zippy book that deals with change gently and with much humour.

MINRS 2 2000px-Maple_Leaf

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I thoroughly enjoyed the action-packed first book in Kevin Sylvester’s latest series, about a group of tweens who find themselves stranded underground on Mars after an attack (from their own allies) leaves all of the adults from their settlement dead. Book one ended with a great revelation and a heck of a cliff-hanger. This is Survivor in space featuring resourceful tweens instead of fame-hungry “reality” stars.

Downside Up 2000px-Maple_Leaf

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I love when my city is well-represented in literature, and in this fantasy story about family, grief, and second chances, we get two representations of Toronto: the regular one (Sorauren Park! High Park! Sunnyside Beach!) and a slightly tilted version, where what was lost is once again found. And then of course there’s the dragons. Don’t be fooled by Richard Scrimger’s talent for humour, this one tugs on the heartstrings.

What’s on your middle grade reading list this fall?

 

Middle Grade Monday: Summer Reading Picks 2016

Whether you’re lakeside, poolside, or inside, summer is the best time to read. Silly, spooky, thought-provoking and engrossing; here are some new(ish) books guaranteed to keep you or the middle grade reader in your life occupied this summer.

Wolf Hollow

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We all have those keystone books in our lives, the ones so deeply affecting that we remember exactly where we were when we finished them.The Giver, The Sky is Falling, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn are some of mine. These books transcend the joy of the reading experience and forever alter how you look at yourself, the world, and the importance of a book. Many readers will feel this way about the taut, tense Wolf Hollow.

Set in the grim aftermath of the first world war, the relative peace of a small American town is upset when a bully named Betty sets off a chain of life-altering events. Annabelle is one of Betty’s favourite victims, but she feels compelled to speak up after a gentle but misunderstood war vet is blamed for Betty’s disappearance. This is the moonshine of poignant-coming-of-age stories; straight up, potent, and guaranteed to bring tears to your eyes.

Perfect read for the deep thinker, or the kid who wants to make the world a better place.

You may also like Raymie Nightingale  and Pax 

Look Out for the Fitzgerald Trouts

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The Fitzgerald-Trouts are a family of loosely related siblings living in a car on a tropical island full of (delightfully) terrible adults. They are fully capable of looking after themselves, but the one thing they would love is a house to call their own. This first book in a new series does a great job setting up the world of the Fitzgerald Trouts, which is just the slightest bit fantastical. The story is lovingly told by a narrator who walks into the story as a character about half way through the book in a delightful twist.

Spalding’s storytelling is effortless and breezy. Her adult characters would be at home in a Dahl novel but the reader never worries about the Fitzgerald Trouts, who are just too darn resourceful and and devoted to each other to raise any alarm bells. I adored their ingenuity and devotion to each other. Sydney Smith’s accompanying illustrations are spare and whimsical, like the island itself. This book is as summery as sand between your toes and sticky, melty-popsicle hands. 

Perfect read for free-spirited, independent makers or the kid who likes a subversive giggle.

You may also like The Fantastic Family Whipple or The Box Car Children.

The Inn Between

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The Inn Between reads like The Shining for middle grade readers. Quinn and Kara are on a cross-country road trip when Kara’s family decides to stop over at hotel called The Inn Between, located in the middle of the desert. The hotel is described as an ornate Victorian building with a pool, incredible pizza and limitless breakfast. But Quinn feels uneasy and soon the creepier things about the hotel come to the surface. Like how some people are allowed on the elevator and others are not. Or the angry-eyed man who keeps showing up. And when Kara’s parents and her brother disappear, Quinn takes a good hard look at the hotel and what it means to be “in between.”

Cohen’s pace and timing is excellent. There are some deeper implications here- letting go, moving on, grief- but this isn’t a realistic contemporary fiction book about loss, it’s a horror story with shades of realism in it. Cohen does not get caught up in blocks of description or too much philosophizing. Realizations dawn on the reader just as they dawn on Quinn.  This is a satisfying, page-turning horror story with just enough gravitas to elevate it out of campy Goosebumps territory.

Perfect read for lovers of scary stories and devoted BFFs.

You may also like Flickers  and The Swallow 

A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel

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It was a dark and stormy night. So begins a true classic of children’s literature, A Wrinkle in Time. Science fiction in its various forms (sci-fi lite, speculative fiction, epic space opera) seems to be popping up everywhere, thanks to the omnipresence of The Star Wars franchise. A Wrinkle in Time is likely the most famous sci-fi novel written for children, featuring frustrated Meg Murry, her mind-reading little brother Charles Wallace, and gangly, endearing love interest Calvin O’Keefe. Adapting this beloved story to graphic novel form is a stroke of genius worthy of Mr. Murry himself. The time-bending and scientific theory may be mind-boggling for some readers, who will appreciate a pictorial rendition of these abstract concepts. Touches of blue lend an otherworldliness to the illustrations. At nearly 400 pages, this is a hefty book and will keep readers engrossed into the wee hours of the night.

Perfect read for sci-fi novices or kids who are looking to try something beyond the Star Wars universe.

You may also like Wonderstruck or  the graphic novel adaptation of Coraline

The Gallery

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1928, Brooklyn. Martha is the daughter of a housekeeper who has started working in the home of newspaper magnate Mr. Sewell. Martha accompanies her mother only to get caught up in a mystery surrounding his wife, Rose. In her youth Rose was a charming party girl, but now she spends her days ranting and raving about paintings in a locked bedroom. What happened to Rose? Why is she obsessed with the paintings? And who is leaking stories about the Sewells- some of them untrue- to the tabloids?

From the first chapter we understand that Martha is a girl with modern ideas. She talks back to her teacher (a rather unforgiving nun), is suspicious of Mr. Sewell’s charm and intentions, and takes the side of woman most people have dismissed as mad. Her dialogue is saucy and her devotion to the truth is inspiring, which will speak to readers’ strong sense of justice. There is a cinematic quality to the narrative and Fitzgerald uses visual and historical details to paint a clear portrait of 1920s New York. There is glitz in the form of Sewell’s mansion , but there is also poverty- represented by Martha’s own crowded apartment and her mother’s dashed optimism. But perhaps the most impressive feat is how Fitzgerald deftly handles a narrative that is essentially about involuntary confinement and turns it into a caper. Rose’s story has parallels to the suffragette movement and is a grim reminder of the challenges women faced at the time. This historical caper feels fresh and exciting, thanks to a breezy writing style and excellent pacing. 

Perfect read for history junkies, especially those interested in hidden histories.

You may also like Under the Egg and Chasing Vermeer.

Middle Grade Monday: Raymie Nightingale

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There is a whole generation who will look back at two-time Newbery medalist and National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Kate DiCamillo the way my generation looks back at Gordon Korman, Judy Blume, Kit Pearson or Beverly Cleary. In fact, in an EW article DiCamillo names Cleary as a major influence for her latest novel, the superlative Raymie Nightingale. DiCamillo has defined American contemporary children’s literature in a way that none of her contemporaries can match.

Raymie Clarke’s father has run off with a dental hygienist. She is convinced if she does something spectacular- such as win the Little Miss Central Florida pageant- he will see her in the paper and come back. Raymie’s story  (abandoned by a parent) is not uncommon, but DiCamillo’s greatest gift is the ability to find the extraordinary in the ordinary. In her deft hands a baton, a jar of candy corn, even a swamp becomes something tinged with wonder.

My favourite Kate DiCamillo novel is Tiger Rising, which I think gets lost in the mega-bestselling, highly-decorated books such as Tale of Despereaux, Because of Winn Dixie and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. Tiger Rising is a very simple narrative about poor children leading hard lives and stumbling upon something so unexpected it feels magical. DiCamillo revisits this idea in Raymie Nightingale. In Tiger Rising, the unexpected is an honest-to-goodness tiger in the woods. In Raymie Nightingale, it is friendship.

Raymie’s new friends, prickly Beverly and painfully optimistic Louisiana have burdens of their own. They are all desperate to be heard and understood, but have been made cautious by past disappointments. There is real sadness here, but as always in a DiCamillo book, hope triumphs over all. Of all the hurting characters in this book, I worried the most for Louisiana. Of all the girls, her situation is the most dire, and yet she is the most hopeful. But even when things looked very bad, I trust DiCamillo to not only point out, but buff up the silver lining.

If I could narrow down the one thing common to DiCamillo’s range of work  it would be her warmth. Whether she is writing fantasy, realistic contemporary, early readers or historical fiction (which  is technically what Raymie Nightingale, set in the 1970s, falls under) genuine warmth for her characters, for her readers, for people permeates the language.

Raymie Nightingale is available on April 12th from Candlewick Press.