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.

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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: 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: Flickers

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Middle grade horror is difficult to pull off. Some authors go for camp, with lots of gore and over-the-top scenarios that are almost humorous, therefore defusing any terror the reader might experience. Governor-General award-winning author Arthur Slade is the other kind of author-genuine thrills created by uncanny situations, eerie coincidences, and a slow-burning sense of impending doom.

It’s been a few years since we’ve had a new Slade novel and Flickers is a return to the atmospheric and chilling storytelling in his GG winner, Dust. The Hunchback Assignments  series was epic in scope, a swashbuckling grandiose adventure- Flickers is quiet. Even though the implications are huge- introducing other realms huge- this is Beatrice’s struggle. We are invested in her, not the fate of the world.

Slade plays with all sorts of tropes, including the psychic connection between twins and the sinister ability of cameras to steal souls of the people they capture on film. I just so happened to be hard-lining the You Must Remember This podcast, all about the hidden or forgotten stories of Hollywood, which added texture to Slade’s depiction of the tempting yet ultimately poisonous apple of Hollywood’s allure. Slade manages to balance the opulence of golden era Hollywood with a sense that something is truly, truly wrong. As a reader you don’t want Beatrice to look too closely at the world around her, convinced that it’s all a sham for something horrible. And how horrible it is, the stuff of steampunk nightmares.

Despite their differences, there isn’t much in the way of rivalry between “ugly” Beatrice and “beautiful” Isabelle. I appreciated their supportive relationship, which is not without its challenges, but never delves into nasty territory. Both Beatrice and Isabelle are complex and interesting heroines with varied interests and plenty of agency. In a world of increasingly cookie-cutter Strong Female Protagonists, Slade bucks the trend of ass-kicking assassins and presents a different kind of heroine, proving strength has many shades. Beatrice doesn’t let what others refer to as physical deformity stop her from seeking out friendship or the things she enjoys in life, despite remaining basically a captive on Mr. Cecil’s estate. She has a good friend in the form of Raul, the gardener’s son, her ‘friend bird’ (instead of ‘lovebird,’ as her sister insinuates.)

In addition to Slade’s own Dust, now a Canadian horror classic, I was reminded of The Nest (Kenneth Oppel) The Night Gardener (Jonathan Auxier), and Emily Carroll’s Through the Woods, all Canadian, all horror.Perhaps there is something about our landscape or literary culture that inspires eerie storytelling- in any case, Flickers is a welcome addition to the genre.

Flickers is available on April 26, 2016  from Harper Collins Canada.

Middle Grade Monday: Wolf Wilder

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Katherine Rundell restored my faith in middle grade whimsy with her much-lauded Rooftoppers, so I was very excited to check out this wintry tale of a girl who helps the pet wolves of Russian aristocracy adjust to a wild, wolfish life.

Feo and her mother are wolf wilders, humans who take in pet wolves abandoned by their wealthy owners for being too wolfish and reintroduce them to the wild. But not everyone approves of their lifestyle, including sadistic General Rakov, who burns their house and takes her mother prisoner. Suddenly Feo, who prefers the company of wolves to people, must learn to trust strangers and make new friends in order to save her mother and the wolves she loves.

This is a great story to cozy up with on a wintry day. It opens and closes with very fairytale-like language, but is set in recognizably Tsarist Russia. There are mentions of the army, communism, but the historical detail is hazy and more suggestive of time and place than fact. The fairytale feel is heightened by Rundell’s unexpected and lovely turns of phrase, one of the things that drew me to her first novel, Rooftoppers.

Rundell subverts stereotypes, creating a aggressive, fierce, action-oriented heroine in Feo and a gentle, kindhearted soldier who’s secret dream is to be a ballet dancer in her unlikely companion, Ilya. This is very much a child empowerment story, where the revolution is stalled until a group of scrappy but savvy children take up matters into their own hands. The group dynamic is sometimes overwhelming with too many voices, but ultimately their zeal is charming and their triumph is satisfying.

Wolf Wilder is available now from Simon & Schuster Books for Your Readers.

Thank You for the Borderlands: RIP Zilpha Keatley Snyder

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Zilpha Keatley Snyder, 1927-2014

When I was a kid I got a box of books at a garage sale. I don’t remember how old I was. It was the summer, possibly between grades 3 and 4, or 4 and 5- but I do remember that box vividly. I discovered some of my favourite authors in that box: E. L. Konigsburg, Judy Blume, and my favourite author of all time- Zilpha Keatley Snyder. At the time, Snyder was the wild card. None of my friends had heard of her. I took great pleasure in recommending The Stanley books, The Egypt Game, The Witches of Worm, and her fantasy series Below the Root to everyone I knew. I still read and love Snyder’s books. She is my greatest inspiration as a writer of children’s fiction.

What I love about Snyder’s books is that they deal so well with things that happen in between, in the borderlands between ages, genres, and perspective. Her characters were often somewhere between childhood and adolescence and she wrote in the spaces between genres. She was never just realistic, just fantasy, just historical. On her website, she even has a category of books called “Border Line Fantasy.” Now there is a writer ahead of her time. Sometimes the magic in Snyder’s books was real, sometimes it had a logical (non magical) explanation. Sometimes the ghosts were literal, other times they were imagined. With Snyder’s fiction I was never sure what kind of book I was about to read, but I knew that no matter what the subject matter or the ending, I would love it.

Many people have said and will say much more eloquent, specific things about Snyder and her work, like this lovely piece from PW, for instance. But I wanted to add my voice to the chorus of accolades because you don’t love an author the way you love one as a child. She is the kind of author I want to be. Every time I sit down to write a little part of me wonders if my work stands up to hers, if it would belong on the same shelf. So here is a list of some of my Snyder favourites:

egypt gane worm cupid Libby 2  ponies velvet room

The Witches of Worm is about an ugly cat, adopted and loved by a girl who discovers that the cat may be possessed by a witch. This is a book that can be enjoyed equally by cat lovers and cat haters, a rare feat of fiction indeed. The story and some very creepy spot illustrations make it an ideal Halloween read. I have a memory of staying up way to late to finish this in bed and scaring myself silly. And I am firmly on the cat lover end of the spectrum.

The Egypt Game is about a group of children who create an elaborate fort and game based on the myths of Ancient Egypt, an innocent game taking place in the shadow of a recent string of child murders. This is a masterful book in terms of plot, atmosphere, and relationships, likely why it was a Newbury honour book. But it also had tons of detail about Ancient Egypt, which I couldn’t get enough of at the time. I desperately wanted to play my own version of the Egypt Game.

The Changeling is about two girls who meet in the woods between their houses and become friends. Martha, shy and conservative, and Ivy, wild, imaginative, and fearless, who claims to be a changeling child left by the fairies with her family, constantly in trouble with the law. Sigh. Doesn’t every twelve year old girl want a friend like Ivy?

Below the Root is the first book in The Green Sky fantasy series that takes place on a planet entirely covered by trees. I was not an avid fantasy reader but I could not get enough of this book. At the time it was one of the most beautiful, saddest stories I had read. I remember begging (badgering might be more accurate) the children’s librarian at the Woodstock Public Library to order it in because it wasn’t in our system.

The Stanley Family series, beginning with The Headless Cupid, is essentially a loose collection of stories about a blended family learning to get along and live together, with a good dose of mystery and suspense thrown in. These bear the hallmark of 1970s-1980s realistic children’s fiction that was issues driven, made extremely popular by Judy Blume. I wanted very badly to be part of the Stanley family’s antics.

Libby on Wednesday is about a girl who lives in an old mansion (this is a common theme in Snyder’s books) and has to put up with a group of eccentric writers who live and work there. This sounded like heaven to me and I couldn’t understand Libby’s reluctance to join their writer’s group. Despite this difference of opinion, I quite liked Libby and I loved this book. Also, as I learned as an adult, her depiction of writers’ workshops is spot on.

Season of Ponies is about a girl who meets a boy who lives with a herd of magical ponies. This sounds an awful lot like a premise for many of those glittery, sparkly early chapter books “for girls” about ponies, but the story is much deeper, earthier, and has a touch of The Secret Garden to it. Even I, avowedly not a horsey person, wanted to find Ponyboy and his horses.

The Velvet Room is about a girl who discovers a tunnel to a secret abandoned mansion full of turrets, plush window seats, and libraries. This place could have been dreamed up by Anne Shirley. Basically everything I ever wanted to find when I was nine years old.

The Truth About Stone Hollow is essentially a friendship story disguised as a ghost story, but it excels on both counts. Plus adding “The Truth” to any title pretty much guaranteed that I would read it. I loved (and still love) an implied lie. Who doesn’t want to find out the truth about things?

I’m not sad that Snyder has died because she had a long life and a wonderful career. What I hope is that people will stumble across eulogies and posts like this and feel inspired to pick up one of her books. You won’t regret it; she was a master.